December 1, 2020

Meet the Socialists Keeping Alive Working-Class Politics in Melbourne

In March 2019, in the outer northern Melbourne suburb of Broadmeadows, a crowd of residents gathered outside the Hume City Council meeting, chanting “poison air isn’t fair!”

The snap protest was called by the Victorian Socialists (VS) in response to a factory fire at Bradbury Industrial Service’s chemical handling facility. The fire burned for days, blanketing parts of Campbellfield in toxic smoke. A speaker addressed the crowd, asking: “How many times do the people of the north and the west in the industrial suburbs of Melbourne have to get blasted with toxic waste?”

Almost one year later, residents of the same area won an important victory, blocking a proposed waste incinerator. At a meeting called to celebrate, one local activist commented “when the socialists got involved, the council really started to take notice.”

These scenes of collective action are a far cry from what is usually viewed as the “small-p politics” of local government, characterized by the petty rivalries, corruption, and managerial babble. Yet they demonstrate the class divides that run deep in Melbourne.

Take Stony Creek, a waterway in Melbourne’s working-class west. It’s still poisoned after a fire in an illegal chemical store in Tottenham. As Jorge Jorquera, Victorian Socialists candidate for Yarraville explained, “If this was happening in Toorak it would be a different story.”

The success of socialists such as Seattle’s Kshama Sawant and the democratic socialists on the Chicago City Council shows that efforts in local politics can both serve the needs of working-class constituencies and offer a platform for national interventions.

This was the spirit with which VS launched its municipal elections campaign in July 2020 at an online meeting of 250 supporters. Founded in 2018 as an electoral alliance, VS won close to twenty thousand votes in the 2018 and 2019 state and federal elections. Though the pandemic has made organizing much more difficult, the party has grown steadily. It now claims 520 financial members; with a further 1,200 registered as volunteers.

As a result, VS is standing an ambitious slate of nineteen candidates across five municipalities in Melbourne. Among them are a number of high-profile activists, such as Roz Ward, best known for her role in founding Safe Schools, a sexual and gender diversity program, or Ali Hogg, a key leader of the successful marriage equality campaign.

Despite this promising starting point, the introduction of single-member wards in Darebin, as well as restrictions imposed by Melbourne’s stage-four lockdown will make it an uphill battle, tipping the scales further toward well-heeled major parties and developer-backed dummy candidates. Yet if even a fraction of VS’s council candidates are successful, it will be one of the most significant electoral breakthroughs for socialists in Australia in decades.

In Victoria, as elsewhere, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted working-class and migrant communities. This was graphically illustrated when Australian Labor Party (ALP) premier Daniel Andrews imposed a “hard lockdown” on many high-rise public housing estates in Melbourne’s north and west on July 4.

Daniel Nair Dadich, deputy mayor candidate for Melbourne City Council and Flemington local, livestreamed on the night the hard lockdown unfolded: “They’ve sent in the cops to deal with a health crisis … one police officer for every six residents. They’ve blocked the entrances to the flats and they’re harassing the residents.”

As he spoke, hundreds of police flooded the estates, home to approximately three thousand people, largely migrants and refugees working in precarious jobs. Deliveries of food and medical supplies promised to residents were botched, forcing them to rely entirely on volunteer organizations who were actively hindered by police. Victorian Socialists, alongside community organizations, raised funds and campaigned for the police to be immediately withdrawn.

These estates have endured more than their share of racism in recent years. Mexican-Australian Nahui Jimenez, VS candidate for Moreland council, recalls that the Flemington estate was the site of a mobilization against now-discredited far-right personality Milo Yiannopoulos. Memorably, when residents of the flats caught wind of the far-right mobilization, they came down to join the anti-racist protest, helping disrupt Yiannopoulos’s event.

More recently, the Victorian Socialists backed a thriving local Black Lives Matter movement against police racism and Aboriginal deaths in custody. Defying bans on demonstrating, the “Black Lives Matter movement is a reminder that mass solidarity has the power to win,” argued Liz Walsh, VS vice president. “We’re committed to a politics of solidarity that can relate to these movements when they emerge, amplifying the voices of those subject to racism.”

This was the aim of the livestreamed public forum, coordinated by Jimenez at the height of the hard lockdown, where public housing residents gave firsthand accounts of failures of cleaning and infection control. Given the long history of police harassment of residents, residents were appalled at the use of police to contain a health crisis. In response, Jimenez and Dadich are proposing to establish elected public housing residents committees to strengthen residents’ voices

A special emphasis, of course, has been placed by local socialist candidates on working conditions, particularly the insecure work that has spread in Victoria in recent years. The chemical factory that burned in Broadmeadows was staffed by a predominately Tamil migrant workforce, who were routinely exposed to dangerous chemicals and afraid of speaking out for fear of employer retaliation.

Similarly, Dadich points out that the source of the public housing outbreak was lax infection control at the “quarantine hotels,” where overseas travelers are isolated for fourteen days:

Andrews (the Victorian premier) gave money to dodgy security contractors to deal with quarantine in hotels — the workers didn’t get proper training, didn’t get protective equipment, and they’ve gone on to spread the virus. Meanwhile people here in the flats were locked in, uncertain of what’s going to happen to their jobs or livelihoods. Don’t get it twisted — only poor and migrant communities would be treated with such contempt.

Indeed, COVID-19 has focused attention on the prevalence and danger of insecure work — the virus spreads readily in industries where precarious work prevails. Liz Walsh, running for office in the western suburbs, organized VS solidarity for meat industry staff in Brooklyn who refused to return to work until their virus safety concerns were dealt with. Walsh argues that local government can bolster these practical solidarity efforts: she is calling for the creation of a council committee to provide food, supplies, and free childcare for striking workers.

On the other side of the Maribyrnong River, Kath Larkin, a frontline public transport worker and union delegate with the Australian Rail Tram and Bus Industry Union, is running for “Lord Mayor.” She is arguing that the Melbourne City Council should directly represent city workers — and that “Lord” should be stripped from the mayor’s title.

“Workers run our city: stacking shelves in the supermarket, cleaning offices, and transporting health care workers to their jobs” says Larkin, “yet we get no say in how our city is run. City workers don’t get a vote, unless you live in the city. Soaring rents and property prices make that next to impossible for us.” To remedy this, Kath is campaigning to end the bizarre, plutocratic voting system that gives business and nonresident landlords two votes — instead arguing that city workers should be given voting rights, regardless of where they reside.

Councils are themselves major employers who have, in lockstep with neoliberalism, long privatized services while casualizing and outsourcing their workforces. Just this year, despite a budget surplus, Maribyrnong Council sacked a hundred and fifty workers from libraries, pools, and community centers as a cost-saving response to the pandemic. The Australian Services Union, representing council employees, is calling on local government candidates to pledge support for secure jobs and pandemic leave for council workers. All Victorian Socialists candidates have signed on to this pledge.

The consequences of privatization have been most disastrous in aged care — COVID-19 has taken a shocking toll on run-down, underfunded aged care services, leading to thousands of infections and hundreds of deaths.

Jorquera is scathing about Maribyrnong Council’s recent decision to permanently privatize its in-home aged care service and relinquish its oversight of the sector. VS is also resisting a similar move underway in the inner north municipality of Darebin.

Local socialist campaigns on aged care have already encouraged several whistleblowers to come forward with stories of inadequate training and personal protective equipment (PPE). Jorquera argues that as a first step, the council must investigate every aged care service in the municipality, and systematically expose cost cutting and underpayment. This should be followed by moves to reverse privatization. It’s an ambitious program, but a very feasible one, especially compared to the human cost of the current arrangement.

It is likely that rent deferrals, income insecurity, and mortgage stress will result in a wave of evictions and foreclosures in Melbourne’s expensive inner north and west. Banks are set to end payment deferrals just as the federal government winds back unemployment payments and wage subsidies.

As Jorquera and other VS candidates argue, councils can support impacted residents by offering full rate relief to households suffering financial hardship. Without measures such as these, working-class people will be forced to seek cheaper rent and housing prices in outer suburbs.

Combatting gentrification also means defending low-cost and culturally diverse services, and infrastructure. Fresh food markets are an important case in point, providing affordable food and vibrant culture. Darebin candidate George Kanjere criticizes council’s support for plans by private developer Salta to move the Preston Market in order to make way for multistory apartment buildings. So long as this important community space is privately owned, it will be at risk: this is why Kanjere proposes that the land be compulsorily acquired by the state government and the market preserved by extending heritage protection.

The Victorian Socialists is still a very young party, but the party’s growing activist base means it can field a large ground campaign. The 2018 and 2019 electoral campaigns, both with up to 750 volunteers handing out materials on election day, as well as door knocking efforts that matched local Greens and ALP campaigns. Of course, this advantage has been neutralized by Victoria’s lockdown.

Socialists have pivoted toward more online organizing instead. Two large party meetings, including a June all-member conference, were held totally online, electing a new leadership and introducing a number of structural changes, such as campaign committees, an increased dues rate, and an improved approach to communications.

These efforts have borne fruit — so far VS has drawn in A$20,000 in donations and organized forums and campaign meetings attracting hundreds of attendees. Volunteers have distributed 410,000 leaflets in the last month. Two hundred thousand more will be distributed in coming weeks. A phone-banking campaign has so far made over eleven thousand calls, and it is estimated that volunteers will have contacted at least twenty-five thousand before the election is over. Of those who have answered their phones, 15 percent have indicated support for VS.

Despite these promising achievements, in-person organizing and one-on-one discussions are the lifeblood of socialist organizing. Without these tools, it remains to be seen whether VS members’ resolve can translate into victory.

However, as Liz Walsh notes,

We see elections as a way to connect a socialist message with working people. If we win, it’s going to be because we were upfront about our politics, and because people voted for socialist fighters. And if we don’t win, we’ve forged new connections and put local councils on notice.

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