The 10,000 workers that marched through Brisbane against Campbell Newman in September showed the anger at state Liberal government cuts. In NSW, thousands of public servants joined a PSA stopwork in October. But the unions are putting their hopes in a “long campaign” aimed at voting the Liberals out at the next election.
This is hugely dangerous. The size of the Liberals’ parliamentary majorities in NSW and Queensland are so big that their defeat is at least two elections away. And such a campaign also means there is no pressure on Labor to dump their support for the privatisations and public sector wage caps they delivered in government.
The state Liberals have also been helping discredit Tony Abbott, giving Gillard a slight bounce in the polls. Winding down the struggle now gives the Liberals space to change the political focus.
If the unions were prepared to wage an industrial campaign of ongoing strikes and protests, it could stop the Liberals’ austerity plans.
Construction workers at the Abigroup Children’s Hospital site in Brisbane have defied the anti-union laws and shown what’s possible.
In NSW, after two large rallies last year, the unions have wound down the campaign against O’Farrell. But there is plenty that can be done to re-start the fight.
Unions NSW is organising Local Union and Community Councils, aimed at beginning an electoral campaign modelled on the local Rights at Work groups run in the 2007 election. The teachers union is holding a community protest in November against education cuts.
Both these will pull together groups of rank-and-file unionists. Activists need to use them to build momentum and pressure for the kind of industrial action needed.
Building the struggle outside parliament also holds the best hope of shifting politics more broadly to the left. In response to recent NSW council elections, former Greens leader Bob Brown was quick to denounce the left-wing NSW Greens in the inner city, claiming on ABC’s 7.30 that they, “need to take a look at Christine Milne and her team who are in there with legislative goals, with costed outcomes, with responsible economic policies”.
He wants an even more narrow parliamentary focus based on cutting deals to achieve “legislative goals”. But if The Greens and the left don’t see their aim as shifting the terms of the political debate then we will get nowhere.
Under Howard, the refugee rights movement succeeded in shifting public opinion and the terms of the debate over refugees through consistent grassroots campaigning and protests. The mass union rallies won the argument against WorkChoices.
The same thing is needed again over refugees, as the Gillard Labor government’s revived Pacific Solution slowly unravels.
Only then will be turn back the rotten bipartisan race to the bottom on refugees and same-sex marriage, and put an end to cuts to schools, welfare and services.