- Interview by
- Annie McGuinness
Melbourne’s West stretches from inner suburbs along the Maribyrnong River like Footscray and Williamstown through to recently developed areas bordering on farmland. In less than a week, alongside other Victorians, its residents will go to the polls to elect a new state government.
Although the eleven electoral districts in Melbourne’s West are known as the Victorian Labor Party’s “red wall,” the last eight years under Labor premier Daniel Andrews have not served locals well. Indeed, although Labor has governed Victoria for nineteen of the last twenty-three years, the area has some of the city’s worst access to social infrastructure like schools, public transport, and hospitals. The population of the region has grown rapidly in recent years, yet thanks to developers, housing prices are going up. A history of heavy industry and manufacturing has left many areas dangerously polluted.
Melbourne’s West is also not likely to cave to the Right. The Liberals command just a single seat in the five-seat Western Metropolitan Region. And during the May federal election, seeds spread by a number of hard-right micro-parties failed to germinate, despite record advertising expenditure financed by mining billionaire Clive Palmer.
This has left voters disenfranchised and seeking out alternatives that can address economic hardship while standing up for social justice. And this may explain why the Victorian Socialists (VS) have built a support base in the Western Metropolitan Region sizable enough to place them within a breakthrough at the November 26 state election. Jacobin spoke to Liz Walsh, Victorian Socialists’ lead candidate for the Western Metropolitan Region about the VS campaign and what the party hopes to achieve should it win a seat on Saturday.
Less than a week out from the election, what’s your reading of the political atmosphere in the West?
Support for the major parties is fraying in the West, particularly in the outer western suburbs. Living standards are declining and wages are being cut in real terms. There are whole suburbs in the West without schools or with schools that are crumbling. In Sunshine North, students have just made a video about their dilapidated classrooms. The walls have holes in them and the science labs are falling apart. It’s in utter disarray.
So, there’s a generalized sense that things are not going in the right direction. While the Labor Party is still dominant here, there are a lot of people who are hurting as a result of the cost of living who hold Labor responsible.
That disaffection can go a range of ways. While some of the frustration can be captured by the far right, the minor far-right parties are a real fringe and quite feral. They don’t have a lot of organic support. Although the far right was able to mobilize thousands against lockdowns, the end of COVID restrictions has taken the heat out of their argument even if they have a bigger audience than they used to. Of course, group voting in the upper house and dodgy preference deals can mean far right parties with minuscule votes can still win parliamentary representation.
The Liberal Party is also trying to build on genuine frustration with Labor, arguing that the only way to make Labor listen is to turn their electorates into marginal seats. Because they’re not in government, they’re throwing around promises that they’d never keep if they were in power. The fact that they can claim they will fund schools better than Daniel Andrews is a real indictment on the Labor Party.
But this doesn’t resonate with many in the West who remember former Liberal premier Jeff Kennett. Those years saw mass layoffs, the privatization of essential services, and the closure of hundreds of schools and hospitals. That said, many who are new to Australia — or who aren’t as political — don’t view the Liberals as the enemy of working-class people.
Despite this, in the West, the fact is that people do vote Labor. That’s because people have a basic identity as being part of the working class. That’s a positive thing.
This sense of working-class identity — combined with frustration at the cost-of-living crisis — is what makes it possible for socialists to connect with people’s anger and disillusionment. There are plenty of people who want a party that stands up for workers and who are sick of being kicked in the teeth by Labor when they’re in power. Those are the kinds of people our campaign speaks to.
I’ve noticed that many politicians — on the Left and the Right — view suburban voters as inherently bigoted and backward. The Liberal Party tries to address people on that basis, by putting forward candidates from its extreme religious right. At the same time, the Greens hardly bother to campaign in the suburbs. It strikes me that this approach is fundamentally mistaken.
You’re right — the far right have spent a lot of time in the West campaigning on right-wing culture war talking points. They’ve distributed leaflets to people’s letter boxes claiming that “the Labor Party wants to be able to change your child’s gender,” and arguing they should vote for the right-wing Democratic Labour Party (DLP) and Family First Party to protect “family values.”
But while there are some outer-West voters who have bigoted attitudes, it’s much overstated. Overwhelmingly, the outer West is populated by recent migrants who are angry about the discriminatory nature of Australia’s visa system. They know that employers take advantage of people with a vulnerable visa status. So when we talk about fighting for human rights and justice, we immediately get a hearing.
In my experience, few people who live in the West are actually motivated by bigoted arguments. There’s far more anger about the lack of infrastructure and the fact that living conditions are going backward. I’ve spoken to many voters who have told me it’s a breath of fresh air to hear from a party that wants to take on the politicians and their corporate mates to stand up for everybody who is struggling.
There was also evidence of this back in August, when members of Victorian Socialists got a nice reception from locals in Tarneit while picketing a Liberal Party fundraiser for Moira Deeming, an antiabortion campaigner.
That’s right. Bernie Finn — who is standing for reelection with the right-wing Democratic Labour Party — used to be a Liberal candidate. After he called for the criminalization of abortion even following rape, the Liberals expelled him. His misogyny was too extreme, even for them. Because of the way upper house elections work, Finn is one of our key rivals this election. That also means if we can get a high enough primary vote, we’ll deny him a platform that he uses to organize against women and the rights of LGBTQ people.
The Liberals replaced Finn with Deeming who is cut from the same cloth. She’s the co-organizer of Finn’s annual antiabortion “March for the Babies” and she’s a prominent transphobe.
So we organized the picket you mentioned to disrupt a fundraiser held for the Liberals, and we got quite a lot of local support, including from a group of nearby residents who had migrated here from Pakistan. They joined the protest, and not just because they know the Liberal Party are a bunch of racists. It’s also because of the campaign work we’ve done in support of Palestine. They saw the protest as part of being in solidarity with people resisting oppression.
Let’s talk more about campaigning in working-class, migrant communities. Victorian Socialists already has a strong relationship with activists from a number of migrant communities in the West and in particular with the Tamil refugee community. How did that develop?
Socialists have stood up for refugees’ rights for decades. But it’s not just about fighting on behalf of refugees. In the last federal election, our lead senate candidate was Aran Mylvaganam. He came to Australia as a refugee at the age of thirteen, and he’s one of the most prominent Tamil community organizers in Melbourne. He’s also a radical and has been committed to the socialist movement for years.
This has helped to prove in practice to the Tamil community that socialists are the most determined fighters for refugee rights and that if we’re elected, we’ll tirelessly resist the racism of both major parties.
Are there other issues facing people in the West?
The Kealba fire broke out in 2019, in a landfill that should never have been built. Residents fought against opening up the landfill, but the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) sided with the billionaire Barro family, who own the tip.
The Barro Group and VCAT argued that the landfill — which is only a few hundred meters from homes — would be a “net benefit to the community.” The reality is, it’s been an utter nightmare for residents. The fire broke out only a couple of years after the tip opened, and there are still underground fires burning. The smell is literally like off meat, and it’s been making residents sick for three years.
After a local-led campaign, the Environmental Protection Agency finally charged the Barro Group. They face millions in fines and may have their license revoked. But it shouldn’t have taken that this long and it shouldn’t have required such an uphill battle to get justice from the regulator.
The issue is symbolic of the way that corporations and the inaction of government agencies regularly trash residents’ health in the West. Before the Kealba fire, there was the 2018 West Footscray warehouse fire, which blanketed the whole area with toxic smoke. Or more recently, when the Maribyrnong River flooded, water poured into people’s homes because of a wall built specifically to deflect floodwater away from the Flemington Racecourse. I was there alongside residents, to help with the cleanup.
They had been warning that this would happen for years. And these kinds of disasters aren’t just the result of a rigged political system that prioritizes developers and business owners over everyday people. They also demonstrate how the impacts of climate change and environmental destruction are always felt hardest by those with less money and power.
Victorian Socialists also have a number of members who are union organizers, and the party has had a strong presence on picket lines. How has this been received?
It’s been received wonderfully. One of our members was the leading shop steward out at Qenos, a petrochemical company where workers went on strike for better pay and conditions.
Workers told us none of the other parties bothered to visit the strike to support the workers. So when we visited to show solidarity, it meant a lot. It proved that there is at least one party that knows what they were going through and that backed them wholeheartedly.
On the polling booth just a few days ago, I met a worker from the Pampas factory in West Footscray who is about to go on strike. She’s worked there for decades, and the last time she went on strike was about twenty years ago. Now, they’re fighting for a 6 percent pay raise and secure jobs, and she was really pumped that they’re about to go on a forty-eight-hour strike. For union militants like her, getting a socialist into parliament that will champion their interests makes sense.
By visiting the picket lines, socialists can help to build workers’ confidence by proving in practice that there’s a party that will join their struggle and help build up power from below. We live in the same suburbs and work in the same workplaces. We don’t care about building “working relationships” with politicians, lobbyists, or business groups — we care about our neighbors, friends, and coworkers. And we can prove that in practice by fighting for policies that redistribute wealth from the wealthy to workers, by standing in solidarity with workers when they struggle or by refusing to accept the bloated salaries that most politicians pay themselves.
What you’re describing — a voice that’s unequivocally on the side of workers — has been missing in Australian politics for a long time. What do you think you can achieve if elected?
Winning a seat in Parliament would give us a platform that we could use to reach millions more people with our basic message: we can only make real change by striking, campaigning, and standing in solidarity with each other.
If VS candidates are elected, we’ll be supporting workers wherever they go on strike, both by building public support for their fight and by trying to spread awareness to other workplaces and industries. We’ll dedicate our resources to workers like those at the Qenos factory or at Pampas in West Footscray. If their picket lines need to be strengthened, we’ll raise support in the community and mobilize our members and volunteers. We’ll raise money for strike funds if the bosses try and lock workers out. And it’s about more than just building morale or keeping a strike solid. It’s also about demoralizing the bosses, by showing them that the workers have the support of the community, and that the strike will only end when workers receive what they deserve.
We want to bring the same approach to social campaigns. Socialists don’t just want to commiserate with people — we want to turn anger into action. Social movements can give people a sense of collective power, and they can put right-wing ideologues on their back foot. When the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, for example, we called a protest that mobilized fifteen thousand people. It was more than a statement of solidarity with women in America — it was a major show of support for women’s and LGBTQ rights here. That’s the kind of approach we want to take to Parliament.
Getting a socialist in Parliament is about more than fighting for concrete gains — we want to do so while building up our side to resist the whole system. It’s about taking on the rich and powerful, not maneuvering or negotiating away our future for a few concessions. All the other parties — even progressive parties like the Greens — get caught up in the logic of parliamentary politics. We’re not aiming to be in Parliament in order to negotiate politely, but to disrupt a political system that’s rigged to favor the rich.
Lastly, whether or not you’re elected, what do you think this campaign has achieved?
We win or lose, thanks to our members and volunteers, we have reached half a million people who live in the Western Metropolitan Region. We’ve made a strong argument that we need to fight for real wage raises and to reverse privatization. We’ve taken a stand against division and hate and for solidarity. That’s powerful, and I think it’s made a difference regardless of whether we win.
We’ve also taken important steps toward bringing socialist politics from the margins into everyday political life. We’ve connected with thousands of people who have become politically engaged through our campaign. These are people we wouldn’t be able to reach through everyday campaigning or social movement work that’s often focused on the city. We’ve signed up hundreds of new volunteers in this campaign alone.
I’m hopeful that we can score a win in the upper house, and if we do, it’ll really help us consolidate. But even if we lose, we’ll have reached millions across Melbourne with our message that there’s an alternative to neoliberalism. I think that has formed a basis for bigger and more powerful campaigns and not just in elections. Even if the vote doesn’t go our way, we won’t be going anywhere. We’re not politicians who appear magically once every four years. Campaigning for social justice and workers’ rights is what I’ve been doing for decades — and it’s what Victorian Socialists are going to keep doing.