Federal Elections 2001: Sixty-four days promoting bold solutions to capitalism

Excerpts from an activist candidate’s diary

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Day 15: Alison Thorne speaks out for refugee rights. Photo by Peter Murray.

Day 1: I’ve been preselected and I’m now officially the lead Socialist Alliance Senate Candidate for Victoria. I know the weeks ahead will be challenging and rewarding because I’ll have the opportunity to speak about socialism to people who’ve never thought about the concept before.

My Senate running mates are Sarah Peart from the Democratic Socialist Party and Tony Dewberry from Socialist Democracy. This time last year, who would have thought that nine organisations and hundreds of socialist individuals would have united to form an alliance? Who would have thought that this fledgling organisation would have over 1,000 members nationally, have reached agreement on a platform and constitution, and preselected candidates to run in every state and territory? This kind of principled and practical unity is something the Freedom Socialist Party has long advocated, but the shift from great idea to a functioning, democratic alliance has both confounded the sceptics and thrilled the optimists!

I wonder what the outcome of the election will be. Commentators predict that reaction to the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax will lead to the downfall of the “mean and tricky” Howard government.

The Coalition and the ALP have been conducting a phony election campaign all year. The government has been throwing money at politically sensitive areas: fuel costs, beer excise, the $1,000 waiver for family assistance and childcare debts, and a few one-off sweeteners for seniors in the budget. The ALP’s line of “attack” is to accuse the government of “backing down” on the GST, while opportunistically siding with Prime Minister Howard in his despicable racist treatment of the 433 refugees rescued by the crew of the Tampa. The ALP is totally cynical — it refuses to be “trapped” into what it considers the electorally damaging position of supporting the rights of refugees.

Day 2: We issue our first news release. The phone rings and it’s 3SYN, the youth and student radio network. The DJ asks what Socialist Alliance stands for and, in particular, what we have to offer young people. Our priority pledge to tax big business and provide free quality education for all — coupled with our promise to scrap HECS debts — goes down like a treat.

Day 3: I break the news of my candidacy to my call centre workmates. They are intrigued. Several, who’ve rarely spoken about politics, offer to help with the campaign.

Day 5: I wake up to news of the terrorist attack in New York City. I’m shocked and know there will be dire consequences. This cannot be good news for the working class.

Day 8: An appearance on Bent TV is a great opportunity to invite queer backing for Socialist Alliance. Active opposition to sexism, racism and homophobia is another priority pledge.

Day 9: George Bush is determined to start a war. His administration won’t examine why imperialist adventures around the globe have made the U.S. government so widely hated. Radical Women ends its business meeting early to be among the thousands in the City Square for an impromptu protest. The mood is a combination of grief, anger and determination to stop the racist scapegoating of Arabic Australians and prevent the drive to war. The Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women distribute our leaflet “Political terrorism: what’s behind it and what can end it.” Other Socialist Alliance affiliates are also taking a lead with some much-needed analysis. We all seem to be drawing similar conclusions: murderous U.S. foreign policy has set the stage for the attack; terrorism is the politics of despair and always results in repression; the need to build a mass anti-war movement is urgent. Socialist Alliance has a key leadership role to play and is ready to do so.

Day 12: Socialist Alliance hosts the first public meeting in Melbourne to discuss the events of September 11, titled “Who is to blame — Middle Eastern people or U.S. foreign policy?” The Council Chamber at Trades Hall is packed. I speak for Socialist Alliance and share a platform with Ali Kazak, Head of the General Palestinian Delegation to Australia.

Day 15: I’m an invited speaker at a protest organised by the Refugee Action Collective to show solidarity with activists who’ve travelled by bus to demonstrate at the remote Woomera Detention Centre. I label Kim Beazley an opportunist and get the crowd chanting “Shame!” My insistence that Socialist Alliance “does not give a damn about adapting to public opinion” but will “campaign around what is right” brings a roar of approval.

Day 22: The Wills branch of Socialist Alliance has taken the lead in organising the first local anti-war protest around the theme “No to War, No to Racism.” The multi-racial crowd is incensed by racist incidents, including two local Muslim high school students being forced off a tram for wearing head coverings. Muslim women are vocal and prominent at the demo. Participants wave placards from Socialist Alliance and several affiliate organisations. Socialist Alliance is delighted at the impact of our protest. Two days before, the Greens candidate for Wills, Richard Di Natale, called to ask if he could speak. We were happy to agree.

Day 28: Socialist Alliance activists knew that when the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting was cancelled, the election would be called any day. And now, it’s official — the date is November 10. Damn, this is frustrating! The electoral laws are bureaucratic, making it difficult to get a new party on the ballot. We’re so close, just days away from electoral registration, and now the process will be frozen until the election is over. This means that our name — Socialist Alliance — will not appear on the ballot paper. One extra challenge, especially for our Senate campaigns. We’ll redouble our efforts. Unfazed, we issue a media release announcing that Socialist Alliance is running as the anti-war party.

With a date in place, I now have to resign from my public sector job so that I do not “hold an office for profit under the Crown” — a rather fancy way of looking at a call centre job — and comply with the constitutional requirements for nomination. Yet another anti-democratic hurdle! For me, this means I will be without an income for the duration of the election campaign. My FSP and RW comrades act on the principle that socialism means sharing!

Day 33: Opening day of the Royal Commission into the Building Industry — an anti-union witchhunt if ever there was one. Ten thousand building workers down tools. Socialist Alliance is there with a leaflet opposing the Royal Commission  and putting arguments in favour of refugee rights and against war. There’s a mixed response from the largely male crowd. Immigrant workers lap up the anti-war message, but I have many conversations with Anglo guys who support the war. Some, in appreciation of our solidarity, are open to hear my arguments. Clearly the union leadership has a crucial role in organising workplace meetings against the war.

Day 36: Victoria sure is a big place. I enjoyed campaigning with the Geelong Branch. We have a nice loud megaphone. The sound bites are refined for Saturday morning shoppers. Our slogan that we are “for the millions, not the millionaires” encourages plenty to stop to talk. Some are enthusiastic, others just curious.

Day 43: Our fundraiser featuring comedian Rod Quantock was a huge success. The union venue was packed. Pioneer U.S. Trotskyist, James P. Cannon, was right when he said people are more open to political ideas during elections — my co-workers are present in force, laughing, eating, debating and enthusiastically buying up copies of the Freedom Socialist.

Day 48: A radio interview about Socialist Alliance health policy — both the Coalition and the ALP want to continue giving $2.5 billion a year in subsidies to the private health insurance industry. Socialist Alliance will scrap the rebate and fund public hospitals. I’m also proud to explain that Socialist Alliance will repeal all anti-abortion laws, contrasting this to the Lib/Labs “conscience vote!”

Another interview. This time with shock-jock Steve Price on 3AW. Or would “ambush” be a better description than “interview”? I’m appalled by his homophobic, sensationalist attempt to misrepresent my 1983 free speech fight. But I’m also pretty pleased that 3AW is not able to force me into saying anything I don’t want to say. They may have trapped me 18 years ago, but I’m a more media savvy activist now!

Day 49: Comrades rally to my defence. Socialist Alliance will not tolerate a 3AW smear campaign against one of its candidates. We lodge a complaint with the Electoral Commission charging 3AW with breaching the Electoral Act by seeking to mislead voters.

Our Senate leaflet is printed. We set up lively stalls to distribute leaflets to workers and students heading out of the city.

Day 50: Socialist Alliance takes to the streets to Reclaim the Night in protest against violence against women everywhere! Alas, the event organisers have a frustratingly narrow view of what constitutes violence against women. Haven’t they noticed there’s a war happening! Participants have no trouble making connections. Every copy of our leaflet “Vote No to violence against women — Vote Socialist Alliance” has gone. Women enthusiastically join in chants led by the Socialist Alliance contingent: “At Nike where they make those shoes, women’s rights they do abuse, women’s rights are not for profit, Nike we will make you stop it!”

Day 54: A candidate forum on Higher Education issues at Ballarat University. I share a platform with Liberal, ALP, Democrat and Greens candidates. The Dean of the uni is scrupulously fair: each candidate gets the same amount of time and the same opportunity to respond to questions from the floor. I describe the impact of the Coalition’s funding policies. One example: the Indigenous participation rate has plummeted since Abstudy was cut. But I give most attention to outlining solutions — we need to tax big business, slash corporate welfare and put money into higher education! I’m delighted that the local branch of the NTEU decides to recommend a vote for Socialist Alliance in the Senate and The Greens for the Seat of Ballarat.

Day 58: Wills Socialist Alliance holds a “No to War — Troops Out of Afghanistan” speak out in Coburg. Again, we respond to a Greens request to speak. At the protest, I pick up a copy of their broadsheet, the Northern Exposure. I’m absolutely astounded. They’ve featured the first Socialist Alliance anti-war protest in Coburg on the front cover. I look closer and then read the text. What? They don’t even mention Socialist Alliance! The Greens candidate is prominently featured next to a group of Muslim women holding Socialist Worker and Socialist Alliance placards with the names of both organisations blurred out. I can’t believe my eyes — they’re trying to claim the credit for a Socialist Alliance protest!

Day 61: Our Senate campaign polling day kits and how-to-vote cards are mailed to members and supporters in Ballarat, Castlemaine, Prahran, Frankston, Hastings, Warragul, Wodonga and Wonthaggi! One of the great things about the Senate campaign is that it gives all supporters a way to actively participate.

Day 63: It’s election eve. I start the morning with another CPSU member distributing leaflets outside the huge Australian Tax Office workplace in Box Hill. Management has announced plans to cut public contact areas and reduce jobs. Our Socialist Alliance leaflet pledges our active support for a fightback.

I join another team and move on to campaign outside a large, privately owned, shopping complex where our Socialist Alliance team does battle with centre management when it tries to move us on. It is crucial to defend our right to politically intervene in public space, and despite corporate control, these malls are important community gathering points.

That’s it — we’re ready! The rosters are in place and the polling materials — including an Open Letter inviting ALP members to “act with us against this unjust war” and multilingual displays opposing war and racism — are packed.

Day 64: It’s election day. We set up colourful Socialist Alliance stalls at the booths and campaign hard, focusing on opposition to war and support for refugees’ rights. Most ALP booth workers are friendly and embarrassed about the party’s craven pro-war and protect Fortress Australia stance. Some say they plan to vote Socialist Alliance. Others give donations. We invite them to join Socialist Alliance.

The polls close at 6 pm. After spending my whole day talking politics with other working class people from diverse ethnic backgrounds, in many ways it is hard to believe the outcome can be anything other than defeat for John Howard. But the ALP has given voters no reason to support it. And besides, who ever wins, when we wake up exhausted tomorrow, “the millions” we spoke about during this election campaign will still have a fight on our hands!

Postscript: After weeks of counting, the poll is finally declared. Combining Lower House and Senate votes, Socialist Alliance attracted nearly 25,000 votes around the country! Given our name did not appear on the ballot, this is a fantastic first effort which we can build on. Socialist Alliance mobilised over 800 people across the country to campaign on polling day, and many new members have since joined. The experience of working with other socialists in a broad, purposeful and united alliance during the federal elections has been a positive and satisfying one for the Freedom Socialist Party. Achieving state electoral registration and running in local council elections provides new goals and challenges for Socialist Alliance in 2002.

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