Australian Socialist Alliance moves forward
Dave Riley is a member of the new
National Executive of the
Australian Socialist Alliance . He was interviewed by SUN soon after the
Alliance’s recent national conference.
SUN: > The recent Socialist
Alliance national conference took place in the context of planned government
attacks on trade union rights, how well has the SA responded to that challenge?
It has been a major campaign focus
of ours for some time as we have tried to ginger key unions and the national
trade union federation-- the ACTU -- into a more direct and more aggressive
response to the impending legislation than they had heretofore signalled. In
some areas we have been very effective in encouraging a broader and more active
response especially in our push to concentrate national trade union actions on
June 30th as a first shot in much longer campaign.
SUN: > The day before the SA
conference there was a National Fightback conference to discuss the trade union
response. What was the composition of that conference? Was it successful in
bringing together trade unionists who support the ALP, alongside SA supporters?
Fightback conference was a key element in our response. We were able to draw
together a very significant group of trade unionists who were serious about
fighting the government’s attacks. While there was an attempt by officialdom of
some trade unions to stifle participation by their members, we were nonetheless
very successful in securing support and participation from among the more
militant trade unionists. While the Alliance’s success in this regard is
grounded in our networking day to day and on own key trade union leaders such as
Chris Cain, Craig Johnston and Tim Gooden, the conference also bought together
leading trade union figures who are members of the Labor Party (ALP) as well a
significant Greens presence with the participation of Greens’ senator Kerry
Nettle. This was a grand beginning to the much broader and ongoing fightback
campaign that’s needed to kill the bill.
SUN: > One of the criticisms that
is consistently raised by the ISO - SWP's sister organisation in Australia - is
that the SA exhibits a: "one-sided hostility to Labor, which is cutting us
off from many disaffected Labor types - we need a united front with those
people, not a stand-off." I know this is difficult to judge from afar, but
the tone of Green Left Weekly seems little different from the British Socialist
Worker on the issue of the Labour party. Is there substance to this accusation
from the ISO?
The recent national conference of
the Alliance re-affirmed its attitude to the ALP in the following words:
The Socialist Alliance
rejects any idea that it is ultra-left or sectarian to criticise the ALP. Given
that the principle aim of the Socialist Alliance project is to build an
alternative to the left of Labor, the Alliance must, if it is to win over those
who are starting to break to the left from the ALP, confidently and consistently
present an honest and accurate analysis of Labor Party policies and practices
from a socialist perspective, even if at times this requires a blunt statement
of facts. To not do this would mean conceding crucial political space for
building the left in general and the Socialist Alliance in particular. We
recognised in the resolution adopted at our last national conference that, in
order to build a left alternative to the ALP, it is not enough to restrict
ourselves to simply denouncing Labor. The Alliance will always look for ways to
draw ALP members and bodies into any struggle in defence of working-class and
democratic rights and against war, but we do this in the knowledge that it will
not be possible to build a left alternative without publicly criticising Labor's
anti-working class positions.
This states our perspective clearly and I think
it would be carping to suggest that this has not been our practice all along.
However, the ISO tried to amend that very clear and self evident position along
the lines you suggest. It has been employed as a handy shibboleth on the left
and among the small SA affiliates as a stick to beat the SA with. Given the
massive traditional weight of Laborism that bears down on the socialist left in
this country, accusing the Alliance of sectarianism towards the ALP is always
guaranteed a baying chorus among those who are hostile to our project. That’s
to be expected. Unfortunately the ISO is pandering to that sentiment.
If there was any substance in the ISO’s reading
of our activity in this regard then the recent Fightback conference would have
SUN: > The other accusation made
by leading ISO member David Glanz is that the SA has "a frantic branch life;
an emphasis on members supporting the Green Left Weekly; a downgrading of
electoral work, especially at the valuable lower-house or council level; an
over-the-top focus on events in Venezuela; and a shift towards an apparatus
which is out of step with the alliance's real stage of development and which can
be sustained only through a constant round of branch fund-raising, tiring
members even more." If it is true that the SA requires a high level of
commitment from all members then that would be a serious impediment to it
sinking solid roots in the working class. What do you think about this?
This gross caricature of 31 out of
the 32 branches of the Alliance angered many SA members. This accusation,
unfortunately, is yet another reflection of the ISO’s fixation with the role of
the DSP in the Alliance and its own lack of implantation in the SA outside a few
inner city locales. The ISO has this very crude schema on what the Alliance
should be doing which it has imported unexpurgated from the British SWP.
At our recent conference, the ISO
even asked delegates to vote on the lessons of the Respect victory! The
Alliance decided two years ago that it was not simply an electoral coalition but
a formation with a partyish perspective and still, the ISO prevails upon the
Alliance to revert to its old mode as though we haven’t decided otherwise.
One of the major thrusts at our
recent conference was to engineer a multi layered approach that gave SA members
more options in relating to this enterprise. This isn’t an activist organisation
we are building but one that relates to people where they are at and what they
feel comfortable about. So now we are experimenting with various networking
initiatives because we have relied previously on branch meetings as the major
organising unit for the SA. Most members don’t come to branch meetings so we are
exploring other ways of involving them. But the reality is that most members
tend to be supporters rather than active members anyway. That’s fine. So it’s up
to the Alliance to find ways to service this layer and generate a sense of
belonging and ownership.
While we are committed to doing
that we also need to draw out and harness the skills of all those SA members
who want to be actively involved in our work..
SUN: > I understand that most of
the SA members who are also members of affiliated organisations are in one
branch (Wills branch), is that correct? This branch has been raised as a model
by the ISO, but how does it compare with the other branches in practice, and
what sort of home would it offer to a non-aligned SA member?
In Melbourne most of the small
affiliate membership is concentrated in one inner city branch
(Wills) and a similar
process has been pursued by the ISO elsewhere. Here in Brisbane the ISO has
compacted its SA activity into the Inala/South West branch but are now trying to
close it down despite our pleas for them not to do so. So Wills is a standalone
“model” as the example has not been replicated elsewhere.
There are many varieties of
branch life and activity among the Alliance’s 32 branches and it is presumptuous
to suggest that any one of these is an absolute model for the rest. In Wills
the political perspective more closely approximates that of a locality based
united electoral coalition rather than a formation proceeding in a partyish
direction and campaigning more widely as part of a national organisation. If
adopted more generally, the Wills model would mean that the SA would need to
restrict itself to a few inner urban localities where electoral activity was a
primary focus and marker of success.
The Alliance has decided
otherwise and Wills is a throwback to a modus operandi we have decided to
transcend. That doesn’t mean that Wills has not been successful in the context
of electoral politics as our most successful local government results have been
recorded there. But the Wills model if applied more generally in the Alliance
would require us to concentrate our efforts into electoral activity in very few
localities around the country. It’s a very different process than what we have
SUN: > After
I last interviewed you, almost the following week there was an article in
the British publication Weekly Worker, saying that the SA project in
Australia was effectively on the rocks due to tensions between the ISO and the
DSP. The Weekly Worker article had a dramatically different understanding
of the dynamic in the SA from your interview. Do you think the truth lay
somewhere in between?
No I don’t. The history of the
Alliance these past two and a half years has been warped by a culture of
factionalism that has been played out in its national leadership bodies as the
small affiliates tried to thwart the broad democratic wish of the SA membership
to proceed aggressively in the direction of forming a new party. I don’t mean to
make light of this as the whole experience has been very embittering and has
taken its toll among some keen activists who have stepped back from active
But the Alliance wasn’t just about
that. Despite this festering affliction, the SA did prosper and did grow with
very little credit to these oppositional elements. In reality there were two
Alliances -- one that was caught up in this left argy-bargying and another that
did the work, reached out, campaigned and consolidated the networks in the name
of the SA. Our National Executive for instance existed on another planet from
the day to day work of the Alliance because so much of its agenda was warped by
this factional myopia.
Well, at this conference just
gone, the chickens have come home to roost and the small affiliates suffered big
time for their pains. If anything marks this conference it is the Alliance’s
broad desire to transcend the culture of factionalism and take collective
responsibility for the huge tasks we have set ourselves. Furthermore, the
conciliatory habit of making formal concessions to these same affiliates
regardless of what they bring to the table has also been junked.
SUN: > Immediately before the SA
conference started, a non-aligned caucus published a number of documents
proposing a "third way". Do you think they reflected a genuine frustration of
Well the “third way” was referred
to by one delegate as “a road to nowhere” and I’d agree with that assessment. It
was a crude attempt to counter-pose the SWP’s electoral united front “model” to
a caricature of the SSP by accommodating the worst features of our recent
history and sentencing the SA to forever being a combination of "x" number of
certified factions separate from one another regardless of political viewpoint.
As I characterised it in our pre-conference discussion the “third way”
embraced “a rigid warring camp model for the SA by seeding all our future
deliberations with the politics of distrust then formulating that as a
constitutional leadership requisite. An apartheid like system of political
segregation rather than integration would become the guiding precept
governing all affiliate activity in the SA “
While it is true that the genesis
of the “third way” was a response to the fact that the SA’s partyish trajectory
had stalled in the wake of the October 2004 federal election ( this result also
fostered a more generalised retreat on the left here) it also reflects the
outlook of those who seek to promote “non alignment” for its own apolitical
sake. This unfortunate take is a direct result of the festering factionalism in
the SA that I referred to earlier. This “third way” was a symptom of that.
But like the perspective of the
small affiliates the “third way” failed to register much support from the
SUN: > Did the SA conference
manage to transcend these internal tensions and look outwards at the bigger
picture, of the union fight-back for example?
We didn’t know it when we first
planned the Fightback conference a year ago that our scheduling would be so
serendipitous. Not only was the conference programmed at the right moment to
galvanize such a portentous coming together, but two weeks before the
Craig Johnston was released from jail on the very day that the
federal government broadcast its industrial agenda.
So with the Fightback conference
being held the day before our own deliberations this set the context for our
discussions. We had to look outwards to the bigger picture because just the day
before, the SA had proven in practice how viable our project was.
So those who sought to insulate
the conference and force it to be inward looking lost out because delegates
responded to this real promise which excited them. Consequently, this was a
very outward looking conference that seized on every opportunity to reboot the
project by embracing the potential that seemed to be unfolding with this
Fightback option against the impending industrial relations bill.
SUN: > Conference effectively
backed the position of the DSP in the SA. Was that because the DSP packed the
The DSP made no secret of its
weight on the conference floor as it comprised around 50% of conference
delegates. If the votes for the main resolutions were just in line with
that percentile then you could say that the DSP carried the conference by dint
of its block of votes alone.
But the main resolutions were
carried by some 70-80% of conference delegates so it is disingenuous to suggest
that this was a stack. The major leadership role the DSP plays in the Alliance
at branch and district level is reflected in that sort of level of delegate
representation. In contrast half of the small affiliates represented at
conference had voice and vote primarily because they were members of the
outgoing National Executive and not because they were voted in by branch
It is also worth noting that
major affirmative votes in the SA, to mean anything, do need to be
overwhelming as the project would not work if it was ruled by simple
majorities. There is an underlying political process here that needs to be
recognised and flagged. What you refer to as the “position” of the DSP isn’t so
much a statement of ownership because the core conference resolutions were
generated in the actual living experience of the Alliance and that’s the way it
has always been.
The resolutions on the GLW project
were worked up by the outgoing SA/GLW board and while I presented the new
leadership proposals to conference they had been developed though ongoing
exchanges between myself, members of the DSP leadership and others in the lead
up to conference . We then altered them further after receiving feedback from
the SA membership once the draft had been circulated. That’s the sort of
democratic culture that enables the SA to prosper as a regroupment exercise.
So the supporters of these
resolutions not only won the conference votes but we also won the debate.
To do it on any other basis would have put the project at risk.
SUN: > Many comrades believe that
a significant factor in the success of the Scottish Socialist Party has been the
willingness of the International Socialist Movement (ISM) platform to relax and
let the SSP have its own life. Although most of the leading SSP comrades are in
the ISM, it no longer acts as a democratic centralist organisation. The DSP
however still operate with "party" discipline within the SA,
do you see that as a potential problem?
I don’t know how the ISM organises
but if you say it is no longer “democratically centralised” I really don’t know
what you mean. I get wary of such a term being employed so liberally to the
Marxist left because it has so many patented meanings. What I think you mean to
suggest is that the ISM no longer functions as a “closed caucus”. In effect most
Marxian groups function as closed caucuses to some varying degree or another but
that doesn’t preclude other factions, with very different political attributes
than them, operating along exact similar lines. So referring to it as a problem
with “democratic centralism” or limiting it Marxist currents is hardly to the
But I guess you also mean that the
ISM does not impose discipline on its caucus
members not just that it
is an open caucus. I think it is true that many Marxist outfits function as
disciplined caucuses, and make no secret of that. But how is such "discipline"
imposed in reality? Most disciplined revolutionary socialist
groupings in capitalist
democracies rely on political persuasion rather that administrative sanction to
get their members to act in concert. Voluntary groups operating in broader, open
formations really don't have that option. To the extent that these outfits
succeed in imposing "discipline" on their members in their interventions, they
can only do so because they persuaded their members of the political value
of that intervention. So this issue isn’t as problematical as you seem to
But let’s assume, for the sake of
my preferred cant, that the ISM no longer functions within the SSP as a “closed
disciplined caucus”. But I can’t see how you can dovetail that notion with the
assertion that somehow the ISM platform is willing “to relax and let the SSP
have its own life”. Why must there be a trade off? I cannot see where the
“independent life” of the SSP should be at loggerheads with the way the ISM
does or does not organise. Surely this is a question of the SSP’s democracy and
not of anything else?
This point brings me back to the
experience of the Alliance here.
When the Socialist Alliance
decided in 2003 to advance towards becoming a “multi tendency socialist party”
that perspective was premised on our collective commitment that no obstacle
would be placed in the path of the DSP integrating into the Alliance. That was
the route we decided upon.
The pace at which that
integration proceeds is dependent on many political variables and it is true
that leading into this recent conference that dynamic had stalled. That wasn’t
due to a sudden reticence on the DSP’s part -- but a combination of relentless
internal SA factionalism and the impact the changing political climate had on
While it is hoped that the fallout
from this recent conference will reboot integration no one can shortcut this by
insisting that the DSP should suddenly cease to operate as it currently does.
That’s how the DSP organises day to day and the DSP is the organisational
backbone of this project. --so it would be arrogant to insist that it should
cease doing what it does, because there is a supposed to be a suddenly
perceived problem with it.
Obviously, it does come down to a
question of trust and mutual respect -- and these issues were confronted at
our recent conference. Leading up to this conference there was a run of DSP
baiting engineered from among the small affiliates and by some supporters of the
“third way”. That the DSP operates along “party” lines was exploited by these
comrades as an excuse to obscure some of the issues being discussed.
But what we soon got to debate
under this heading was how we can make the Alliance more democratic and
its leadership more accountable than was presently the case. Those who
were fixated with the DSP question weren’t interested in such matters as they
wanted to persevere with the factional status quo engineered around segregated
warring camps which, by default, precluded integration
This soon enough came down to a
debate over one vote/one value for the election of the SA’s national leadership
and that’s what the conference endorsed -- an open Single Transferable Vote
system with a clause limiting any one affiliate, tendency or organised
political current to 40% of the national leadership body elected from
conference. This means that candidates for national leadership positions go
before conference as individuals with credentials of their own making regardless
of their allegiances.
That doesn’t absolutely solve the
“problem” I think you are referring to because at some stage I hope we can look
forward to integration being completed -- but we aren’t there yet. The past
factionalism in the SA has not been conducive to a situation where caucusing can
be set aside. As the DSP devolves more of its activity and assets into the SA
the less, I’m sure, they will require parallel structures.
SUN: > Mike Treen of the New
Zealand Unite union, and Grant Morgan of NZ Socialist Worker attended both the
Fight-back conference and the SA conference. Would you say there was a
difference in emphasis between the NZ and Australian IST comrades?
This was Mike Treen’s second SA
conference and Grant Morgan had also been part of a New Zealand delegation that
Asia Pacific Solidarity Conference which was held in Sydney at
Easter this year. Following on from our conference the New Zealand Socialist
Worker comrades have decided on
fraternal relations with the Socialist Alliance.
In an article to be published in
next edition of their paper , Morgan writes of the SA conference:
Alliance was reorganised. The old leadership structure, a clunky and unworkable
compromise between factions, was thrown out. Its place was taken by a more
democratic and streamlined leadership intent on mobilising against the
government's attacks. A parallel reorganisation cemented the partnership between
the Socialist Alliance and Green Left Weekly, Australia's premier
socialist paper. The intention is to boost the paper's capacity to educate and
organise the workers whose mass actions alone can "kill the bill". Driving these
initiatives were the Socialist Alliance's three key constituencies: militant
unionists, social justice activists and the Democratic Socialist Perspective. In
my opinion, the decisions of both conferences should be welcomed by all serious
leftists. They carry into practice the best traditions of militant unionism and
I very much doubt that the ISO --
the Australian section of the IST -- would share that view.
SUN: > You
have been accused of being a "DSP stooge". Are you?
The poisonous result of the
factional fixation with the DSP in the Alliance has been this ongoing attempt to
turn the DSP into a pariah and any one who collaborates with them into bona fide
stooges. It’s all pretty McCarthyist and reflects poorly on the maturity of the
organised Australian socialist left.
Rather than debate out the real
issues in dispute, DSP baiting has standardly been employed to frighten keen SA
activists into keeping their distance from the nasty bogeymen and bogeywomen of
Frankly I’m well past caring about
this. Either what I say or do stands on its own merits or it doesn’t. I go by no
label except my passionate commitment to this Alliance project.
I think we’ll be hearing much less
of accusations like these primarily because those that trade in them were so
soundly defeated on the conference floor.
SUN: > What are the prospects for
the Alliance now?
This impending struggle over the
new industrial laws will have a major impact on socialist politics in this
country. I don’t have a crystal ball and cannot offer suggestions on how this
will pan out. But this struggle— win or loose -- will lead to the creation of a
very different left in this country and a very different Socialist Alliance. We
know that and we are trying to find ways to relate to that pressing issue as
best we can.