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Labor, war and the illusions of Australian democracy

By Tim Anderson - posted Tuesday, 6 July 2004

In the corporate-media dominated two-party system that passes for "democracy" in our country, there is recurrent confusion over what the Australian Labor Party actually represents. Is Labor a force for social democracy, an "imperfect" vehicle for the labour movement and progressive causes, a broad force within which many struggles take place to "realistically" extract some small progressive changes? Or is it "captured" by the corporate-media conglomerate and the US empire, a vehicle for opportunist administrators who act on behalf of the big powers, presenting a style of corporate globalisation "with a human face", which can only push through limited progressive measures under massive pressure from outside social movements?

I believe history tells us the second scenario is the closest match. Below is an outline of some of that evidence. Labor is adept at its own myth-making, so let's first look at two myths: that Labor led opposition to the Vietnam War, and that Labor championed Aboriginal land rights.

First, it was only left dissidents in Labor (such as Jim Cairns) who joined the anti-war movement in the early days. Whitlam did not oppose the Vietnam War at first. The Labor mainstream got on board as the anti-war movement gained strength. Then, after Vietnamese resistance (and over a million dead) and prolonged anti-war movements in the US and Australia, it was a right-wing government under Gorton that withdrew all Australian combat troops in 1971. While Labor in 1972 ended conscription and withdrew the remaining personnel from Vietnam, Whitlam also maintained the US bases, especially Pine Gap, which was poised to support a possible US nuclear strike on Arab states during the 1973 Middle East war. What is the lesson for the current anti-war movement? Neither major party can be trusted on war, yet both can be pressured from the outside. Anti-war movements must remain independent of the major parties.


Second, the Keating administration portrayed itself as a champion of Aboriginal land rights, after the Mabo case and the Native Title Act. In fact, the Native Title Act 1993 was a painfully deceptive piece of legislation. It has delivered almost nothing to Aboriginal people, mainly because it was a piece of political theatre divorced from real political struggle. All the major advances in land rights since the 1960s had followed strong campaigns by Aboriginal movements and their supporters - movements that forced some limited recognition of Indigenous rights. For example, the Fraser Liberal government passed the most powerful piece of land-rights legislation (the Northern Territory Land Rights Act, 1976), after the Whitlam government had deferred the issue to a Royal Commission. Small advances in the late 1970s and early 1980s under Labor (in S.A. and N.S.W.) followed campaigns that produced some bipartisan support. Federal Labor in 1983 then promised national land-rights legislation but reneged on this promise in 1985 after campaigns from mining companies and the W.A. Labor government. Hawke, Keating and Labor then did nothing in this area (after the 1985 Uluru handback) until the 1992 Mabo case forced them to clarify the extinguishment of native title in most parts of Australia. Extreme reactionary moves by Howard and the conservatives have obscured the great betrayal of Labor on Aboriginal land rights.

Labor has introduced some progressive policies (anti-discrimination laws, Medibank) but these all needed the backing of strong movements outside electoral politics. Such achievements are used to hide Labor's truly reactionary moves. It was a WA Labor government under Premier Carmen Lawrence, for example, that first introduced mandatory sentencing - a measure aimed at Aboriginal youth in the middle of a spate of car thefts. It was Federal Labor in the 1980s that dismantled the indexation of wages, then went on to undermine social security by introducing private superannuation (to the serious disadvantage of women, in particular), and to reintroduce university fees through HECS. It was federal Labor in the early 1990s that introduced the first "mandatory detention" concentration camps for refugees. These initiatives should not be quickly forgotten.

Although the Whitlam government did its best to maintain the US "alliance" (the 1972 comment by Jim Cairns that US "murderers" were bombing Hanoi was an unusual outburst of honesty), lingering suspicions contributed to covert US support for the toppling of Whitlam in 1975. However by this stage the major corporate forces in Australia were upset at Whitlam's unorthodox resource and finance policies, and all the mass media were against Labor. The painful lesson of 1975 for every Labor leader from then on (eg. Wran, Hawke, Keating) was that strategic alliances with the corporate sector had to be rebuilt. Labor had traditional links to manufacturing business but this sector was in decline by the 1970s. Crucial to the success of the Hawke-Keating model (1983-96, the longest Labor regime in Australian history) was its wresting of corporate support from the conservatives (the "natural" representatives of the investor class), particularly in the finance sector (through banking "deregulation") and the export sectors (through a renewed system of export subsidies and advocacy of international "liberalisation").

In the early 1980s, Labor rejected a popular anti-uranium policy because (as then leader Hayden explained) there was concern that the banks and foreign investors would react badly. Then Keating explained away policies that had benefited the likes of Kerry Packer and Alan Bond, by declaring that "profits were good for workers", relying on the "trickle down" theory. At the end of the 1980s, after corporate campaigns against Telstra (eg. through Packer's Channel Nine), Labor began the process of privatising telecommunications. This later became "national competition policy" - nothing to do with claimed consumer benefits, but rather allowing private investor access to the highly productive investment fields of telecommunications, electricity and other public services. The deceit of this neo-liberal venture is still a cause of public mystification. Far from challenging corporate power in Australia, Labor facilitated the rise of the corporate swindlers of the 1980s, so as to maintain its own miserable grasp on power. "Left" Labor members were and are bound to this cause by Caucus rules, and by their own personal ambitions.

Every Labor leader committed to attaining and retaining power - and Latham is hardly an exception - will remain squarely focussed on its great and powerful corporate friends, as well as its allies within the US empire. For this reason - as relieved as many will be to see Howard go - it is important to recognise that such electoral change will not shift basic politics in Australia. Under Prime Minister Latham, Austalians will still wake up to a media absolutely dominated by Murdoch and Packer, economic policies backing the banks, miners and woodchippers, and a renewed commitment to the "US alliance" - in other words, to aggressive imperial war and economic domination.

Labor may be relieved to find a Kerry administration in the US in 2005; but this relief will only be at removal of a required association with the crudity of Bush. Although Kerry has been strongly critical of Bush, his argument is about method rather than aims. He has no real exit strategy for Iraq or Afghanistan. His main specific commitments so far have been to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan and to internationalise the occupation of Iraq. This will not get Labor "out of the woods" in the current campaigns to "export democracy", or to carry out a "war on terrorism". But Labor's weakness will induce it to rely on Kerry's modified imperial plan. External pressure on both Labor and the conservatives remains essential in extracting Australia from this snakepit.


The US is doomed to failure in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Its history with puppet regimes (the Shah of Iran) and client states (Saddam Hussein) in the region is hopeless. While the US has devastating killing power, its skills as a colonial administrator have never been strong. Yet it is desperate to secure strategic oil supplies, and has too much pride to accept defeat easily. "Democracy" has nothing to do with the occupations. As one CIA source said, if there were democracy in Saudi Arabia today, Osama Bin Laden would probably be President.

These problems have been made our problems, and a rapid Australian exit is critical. Neither the US nor Australia can have any role in "building democracy" in Iraq. Murderers, torturers and rapists can never 'rebuild' the communities they have devastated. Anyway, what do Australians have to teach anyone about democracy? We barely have a concept of "citizenship". The Keating-Turnbull plan for a minimalist republic said a lot about Australian democracy - no mention of citizens, just a suggested switch in the head of state.

On the other hand, by remaining in Iraq and Afghanistan we can do a lot of damage. We and other collaborators will suffer for our support of US war crimes - eg. through the bombings in Bali and Madrid. Or rather, innocent people will suffer for the crimes of collaborationist leaders like Howard and Aznar. Worse than this, we will extend the killings and suffering of many thousands of others, by lending moral support to a morally bankrupt empire. We need to get Australian troops out fast - but reliance on Labor would be badly misplaced.

A Labor administration will not speak plainly (as many Australians would like) to the US empire. For all Latham's past talk about Howard and his "suck holes", watch him change his tune. Labor has always supported the "war on terrorism" - nothing less than an ongoing pretext for intervention, bombings, mass murder and repression around the world, in support of US strategic dominance. Resistance (including "terrorism") will not go away, because too many people hold onto their right to self-determination. And that is democracy.

Real challenges to corporate power and the US Empire cannot be driven by Labor, which is formally allied to the big powers. If Labor is to move at all on the big issues it must be shamed, pressured and electorally deserted - as NZ Labour was deserted and as Blair's Labour is being deserted. Even the conservatives are vulnerable to such pressure. It was not part of Howard's agenda to support the people of East Timor in 1999; yet a public movement forced his hand. For all these reasons, I say that Labor can never be trusted, nor can democracy in Australia be reduced to our pitiful two-party system.

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Tim Anderson is a Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

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