Reform and Reaction in Australia: The Story of the Whitlam Labor Government

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Whitlam addresses protesting supporters in Canberra following the dismissal

By Cory Anderson

 

The Australian government of 1972-75 stands out as one of the most successful reforming governments in history, comparable perhaps to the first Labour government here in Aotearoa or Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ in the United States. Led by Gough Whitlam, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) introduced significant reforms, including free tertiary education, increased pensions and healthcare funding, brought troops home from Vietnam and ended the racist ‘White Australia’ policy. Part-way through its second term however, it was thrown out by the Governor-General and the Liberal Party in what can only be called a legal coup.

 

Immediately after entering office, the Whitlam government set about business. They ended the draft after just 30 minutes in government, intervened to support equal pay for women, dropped sales tax on contraceptives, banned sports teams from apartheid South Africa and took steps to support Aboriginal land rights and culture.

 

But in spite of heading perhaps the most progressive Labor government in Australia’s history, Gough Whitlam came not from the left but the right-wing of the ALP. He cut his teeth campaigning for “modernisation” of the party and a reduction in the influence of unions. He wanted a more respectable, middle-class party with a media friendly image: more suits and less socialism. Under his leadership the party tacked to the right on Vietnam and he intervened to remove the left-wing leadership of the ALP’s Victorian branch.

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Fascism: then and now

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Mass mobilization of workers, socialists, communists and Jewish workers groups beat back fascists in London in the 1930s

Josh O’Sullivan gave this talk to the Auckland branch of the International Socialists in September.

 

This talk is both a reflection and a call to arms. Political movements around the world are growing and although people are clamouring more and more for an alternative to capitalism, so to are people looking to the most backward elements of society to prevent any challenge to the status quo – to even thrust society backwards to darker times.

The political and institutional framework that has regulated and stabilized capitalism since the end of World War Two is facing concerted challenges that threaten to tear it apart. In much of Eastern Europe, far right parties have swept into government and gained a heavy foothold in Western European countries. Russia, under the authoritarian rule of Vladimir Putin, has begun to reassert itself as a reactionary force on the world stage. Then there is the dramatic rise of China,wWith now possibly lifetime President Xi Jinping. Most dramatically, the U.S., still the world’s most powerful state, is headed by a president who openly champions fascists and ultranationalists and is attempting to tear apart the liberal play book.

This is the context in which we find ourselves in, capitalist society in a continuing recession with no answers, resulting in a deepening polarisation between the left and right, with radicalisation on both sides. Socialist organisations, anti-capitalist movement and trade unions have swelled with the realisation that capitalism can offer no answers to our plight. But at the same time fascist organisations and sympathisers are growing, developing international links, supported by the racist rhetoric by those in power and emboldened by the growing support they have received.

In the wake of the emboldening of the far right globally, far right speakers have now made it to Aotearoa. This makes it all the more important to learn from the lessons of history and the links between the far right, fascism and its relation to capitalism.

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World War One: the Fight against Conscription

Maoriland WorkerAmidst all the patriotic furor this centenary, the real history of the war is all too easily forgotten.  The government and the opposition alike cry crocodile tears for the fallen and mouth “Never again!”, while daisy cutters are dropped on Afghanistan and the history books are (re)re-written.

In high-school classrooms and history-books, we are taught a version of the war in which a well-fed, well-bred (and mostly white) nation proudly sacrifices its sons for the lofty ideals of “God, King and Country”.  The little mention made of wartime dissent is limited to a few footnotes about ‘conscientious objectors’ who are presented as a tiny minority of isolated idealists, and perhaps a few comments on the rising cost of living.

This version of history was written by the ruling class, for the working class, to create a placid and pliant society that allows the prosecution of future wars.  The real history of the war is somewhat different.  In New Zealand, there was a great movement against the continued prosecution of the war, and for peace.  It wasn’t a minority, and it wasn’t isolated.  Hundreds were jailed, and thousands condemned the war in public meetings, in their workplaces, and on the streets.  This article tells just part of that story, the fight against conscription. [Read more…]

The Second Chinese Revolution 1925-27

Hong Workers Strike in 1925The Second Chinese Revolution of 1925-27 was a turning point in world history. Consider the world situation around 1924-1925. In Europe the revolutionary wave that accompanied the end of the First World War had exhausted itself to leave the Russian Revolution isolated. In Germany the revolutionary process from 1918 to 1923 had been halted and capitalism temporarily stabilised by the Social Democrats.

The short-lived Hungarian Soviet government had fallen in 1919. In Italy the ‘Biennio Rosso’, the two red years of 1919-1920, had given way to reaction and the accession to power by Mussolini. In Poland reaction set in and Marshall Pilsudski would install himself as dictator in 1926.

Hope for the spread of the world revolution, and relief to the beleaguered Soviet Union, now lay in the east, in the struggle against imperialism, especially in China.  These hopes were not realised. The defeat of the Second Chinese Revolution had devastating consequences that defined the dark days of the 1930s. [Read more…]