The Immodest Victorian Socialists

Socialists have long been on the margins of Australian political life. That's beginning to change.

Melbourne, 2007. Donaldytong / Wikimedia

Australia hasn’t had an explicitly socialist member of parliament since the communist MP Fred Patterson was gerrymandered out in 1949. Since the collapse of his Communist Party following 1989, socialist groups have found themselves confined to the margins of political life.

This is beginning to change.

On Friday, August 24, close to five hundred people filled the seats and standing area in the Town Hall of Brunswick, an inner city suburb of Melbourne, to hear the candidates for the new Victorian Socialist party launch their election manifesto.

Stephen Jolly, the lead candidate, began his speech wryly, “Someone just told me a minute ago — it’s 25 percent longer than the Communist Manifesto!”

The Victorian Socialists are not modest — notwithstanding the name’s associations for those unfamiliar with Australia’s southeastern state.

Origin Story

The party came together early in 2018. It is a coalition of socialist groups, independent leftists, and trade unionists.

The Australian left has historically been fragmented. Stephen Jolly, a long-time socialist, helped to overcome this. His record goes back to his involvement in the Left of the Irish Labour Party and activism against apartheid in South Africa. Upon moving to Australia in the early 1990s, he became central to the fight to save public schools in Richmond, a suburb in Melbourne’s inner east. Jolly has built a base of support and goodwill through these and other efforts. He has served as a community activist and councilor on the Yarra Council for more than a decade, with a consistent record of defending the poor and marginalized in this rapidly gentrifying suburb. He has forged a reputation of consistency and efficiency and is popular even among Yarra’s wealthier baby boomers for his ability to get things done. He is a construction worker and has served as a delegate for Australia’s construction union, the CFMMEU. He has contested numerous state elections, polling as high as 17 percent — a significant achievement in what is, in practice, a two-party system.

Still, a candidate alone does not a party make. The Victorian Socialists’ backbone is made up of Australia’s two largest socialist organizations, Socialist Alternative and the Socialist Alliance. These established groups have given the Victorian Socialists a crucial advantage: immediate access to cadres of committed activists, a wealth of experience, and strong organizational structure.

As the name makes apparent, the party is based in only one state — Victoria. This state, and especially its capital, Melbourne, is the most progressive part of Australia. It is a multicultural city of over four million with a long history of protest, radicalism, and politics. The city is also deeply class divided. Its neoliberal transformation will be familiar to anyone who has lived through the last few decades. The 1990s and 2000s saw public housing, public transport, and public amenities sold off alongside declining funding for health and education.

If a socialist electoral campaign is going to win anywhere in Australia, it’s in Melbourne.

Having a realistic strategy was also key to the party’s formation. This is more than just an optimistic bet on Melbourne’s progressive culture. The Australian electoral system, which is based on the Westminster system, is different from that of the UK or the US and, in comparison, offers antipodean socialists a few advantages.

Unlike in the US, the barriers to forming a registered political party and standing candidates are modest. The Victorian Socialists recruited and registered the 500 members required to form as a party and stand candidates within weeks of announcing its formation. Now, membership stands at close to 1,300 and growing.

Given that Australia’s total population is close to that of Texas and given that the Victorian Socialists are based in only one state, these are not bad numbers. Indeed, Australia’s established third party — the Greens — boasts only 9,500 members nationally.

Unlike the UK, Australia is blessed with a preferential voting system. This is a big advantage for a small party.

Of course, Australia is still an essentially two-party system. But the poverty of the political options available has created a space to rebuild the socialist left.

Power is held federally by the Liberal (read: Tory) Party. They’ve recently changed leaders, swapping a millionaire technocrat from Sydney’s exclusive north shore for a proud and public Hillsong Church member who loves both Jesus and stopping refugee boats.

The irony was entirely lost on the Liberal Party’s hard-line faction whose preferred candidate was a millionaire ex-cop who has personally interceded at least fourteen times to block sick refugee children under Australia’s jurisdiction being brought to the mainland for treatment.

The alternative party of government is the Australian Labor Party (ALP), which introduced neo-liberalism in the 1980s. It’s a far cry from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. What our Labor Party lacks in social-democratic credentials and a base, it makes up for with ex-student politicians, focus groups, and by obsequiously tailing the Liberal Party. To quote a former Labor leader, the ALP is a shiver looking for a spine to run up.

The only viable alternative for decades has been The Australian Greens, formerly a protest party, but now a progressive middle-class party. It’s a coalition of Tories on bikes, socially conscious baby boomers who live in architect-designed homes, and millennials who haven’t yet graduated from edgy liberalism to socialism.

This three-way monopoly on politics means that hundreds of thousands of voters who are frustrated with decades of worsening living standards and shifts to the right have no home. The Victorian Socialists want to offer them one.

The fact that Australia has preferential voting is especially important in elections to the Federal Senate or the Legislative Council (the upper house of the Victorian Parliament; the VLC.) Complicated preferencing arrangements have meant that minor parties can — and have — won representation with a very low percentage of the vote.

Suspicious preference deals are not how the Victorian Socialists will win. Nevertheless, these electoral arrangements make winning a seat a realistic possibility. This strategy will target one district in Melbourne’s north — the creatively named “Northern Metropolitan Region.”

This district, home to a million voters, takes in a huge swathe of Melbourne’s north — from the CBD and gentrified inner-city suburbs to vast, peripheral suburbs that are overwhelmingly working class. It is a very diverse region, including areas heavily populated by migrants, public housing tenants, students, and pensioners. Some parts of the region suffer under unemployment rates of 25 percent. It is a region that always returns Labor Party candidates and, as a result, is routinely ignored and taken for granted.

In Melbourne’s north, the desire for an alternative approach to politics is strongest.

This district returns five members of the VLC: two from the Labor Party, one from the Liberal Party, and one from the Australian Greens. The fifth member is presently Fiona Patten, head of the newly renamed “Reason Party” — a tiny libertarian outfit closely tied with the adult industry. Last election, when the party was known as the Sex Party, Patten won the seat on less than 3 percent of the vote. Smart pundits suspect that she will not survive the loss of the novelty vote.

The Victorian Socialists are confident they can easily beat 3 percent. A result of over 5 percent — depending on how preferences flow — gives Stephen Jolly a fighting chance to win a VLC seat.

This combination of a candidate with a profile, organizational weight and a realistic strategy has helped the new party win support from broad quarters. The party has already received campaign contributions from a number of Australia’s trade unions, including unions covering construction, electrical workers, manufacturing, warehousing, health workers, firefighters, and more. Together, these contributions and other fundraising initiatives have added up to over $100,000 as well as promises of campaigners come election time.

This has also given the party a credibility and appeal that goes far beyond what any one of its component members is capable. Currently, the Victorian Socialists operate in eleven districts in Melbourne’s north.

The party aims to mobilize over a thousand volunteers in the weeks leading up to the election, to help knock on doors, leaflet train stations, and paste up posters. In other words, like every other socialist electoral fight around the world, the Victorian Socialists know their strength is with their members and activists.

What Do the Victorian Socialists Fight for?

The launch of the Victorian Socialists election manifesto outlined the program that the party will be taking to this election.

Economic demands — the likes of which the Labor Party should (but never will) fight for — figure prominently.

Many of these focus on public housing. In his time as a councilor, this has been an important part of Jolly’s work and advocacy. The issue has become more urgent in recent as the Labor government has attempted to sell off public housing stock under the guise of refurbishment. To counter this, the Victorian Socialists have proposed to increase public housing by building 100,000 new homes and to introduce mandatory inclusionary zoning in all new developments. This is the only way to guarantee homes for the 80,000, including 25,000 children, presently on the waiting list.

Also on the agenda is a new deal for renters. Rental prices in Melbourne are on par with New York and London — and prices are rising. A new deal for renters would abolish groundless eviction notices, impose steep penalties on keeping properties vacant, mandate a five-year freeze on rent increases, and cap subsequent increases to the Consumer Price Index.

Drawing inspiration from Jeremy Corbyn, the party believes that privatization has failed catastrophically. They propose to re-nationalize Victoria’s public transport network, to introduce free public transport (and abolish the army of ticket inspectors that intimidate commuters), and to dramatically upgrade congested yet infrequent services. Additionally, the party wants to nationalize utilities like water and electricity. The corporate owners of these necessities have steadily increased prices to consumers, despite receiving government handouts valued in the hundreds of millions.

Women bear the brunt of economic exploitation. The gender pay gap is at 83 percent. The party has committed to address this, to boost not-for-profit childcare and improve access to abortion services at major hospitals.

No other party promises to divest from private schools, to abolish standardized testing, and to ban hidden costs to parents with kids in public schools. Similarly, the party will push to invest in technical education, to improve ratios of nurses to patients across the health and aged care industries, to better fund hospitals, to open community dental centers, and to dramatically increase funding to mental health services.

In Australia, it is a criminal offense to strike outside of an official bargaining period — and even then, proposals to strike must pass through a lengthy approval process. Even then, the arbitration courts can rule a strike illegal at discretion. The Victorian Socialists want to shift power back to workers — they want to make wage theft a crime, to demand jail time for industrial manslaughter, and to completely decriminalize the right to strike.

Under the state Labor government, incarceration has reached its highest rate since 1987. 2018 has seen the biggest single increase in the rate of incarceration in the history of Victoria, despite a 10 percent drop in overall crime. Victoria should not revisit its convict past. The party is resisting this bipartisan law and order agenda and demands that Victoria stop building new prisons. The hundreds of millions of dollars saved can be used to improve rehabilitative and diversionary programs.

This is directly connected to the demonization of Victoria’s African population, Muslims, and Aboriginal Australians. There is a need to clamp down on over-policing of marginalized communities and to introduce programs to welcome refugees and migrants. The party will also back a treaty and self-determination for the indigenous peoples of this land.

Outlining a vision like this — which is both realistic and radical — has been important for proving that this is not a propagandistic or sectarian campaign.

More than these proposals, however, the Victorian Socialists want to introduce a new style of politics into Australia.

As the election manifesto argues:

The Victorian Socialists won’t only fight for you — we’ll fight side by side with you. Our vision for a better society is based on our commitment to community organising. … A Victorian Socialist in parliament will raise the voices of campaigners in the suburbs, explaining their demands to the wider community and countering the lies of the mainstream media.

Stephen Jolly has made the traditional socialist commitment that if he is elected, he will accept only an average workers’ wage, with the rest being channeled back into community campaigns. His parliamentary office will be transformed into an organizing center, open to workers, students, constituents, and activists.

The next two candidates are Sue Bolton, who has served as a councilor in Moreland (a district in Melbourne’s north) and Colleen Bolger, a lawyer who has litigated for workers suffering from asbestos-related diseases. Beyond this, the Victorian Socialists have gained support from a range of prominent writers, trade unionists, community leaders, and long-term activists. The party’s commitment to the struggle is embodied in its members and candidates.

More importantly, Victorian Socialists sees themselves as a part of the worldwide resurgence of interest in socialism embodied by leaders like Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. This campaign relies on and wants to join the new generation who are for the first time discovering the socialist tradition, as well as older generations who have seen their lives and the world deteriorate for far too long under capitalism.

Australia’s most progressive postwar Labor Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, won his 1972 electoral campaign on the slogan “It’s Time.” That was forty years ago. Today, it’s the beginning of a new era. As Jolly argued at the manifesto launch:

Living in a household in the 1990s with my wife and daughters, I know far more about Sex and the City than any of my friends. If someone had told me ten years ago, that Cynthia Nixon would be going to the Democratic Socialists of America, begging for their endorsement, and discovering that maybe she was a socialist, I would have told them they had rocks in their head. That just shows that even in the belly of the beast, there’s a rediscovery of socialist ideas. We can sense it here in this campaign when we are out on the streets.

This is why Victorian Socialists think it’s time to elect the first socialist to an Australian parliament for seventy years.