Bipartisan contempt for pro-refugee protesters at Parliament House

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Protesters and the fountain they dyed red, outside Parliament House, Canberra (image by Nick Haggarty via abc.net.au).

Pro-refugee protesters exercising their democratic right to be heard in Parliament House may have set in train the death rattle of democracy, writes John Passant.

DEMOCRACY — it has been much in the news since those nasty pro-refugee protesters interrupted that period of very productive work in Federal Parliament known as Question Time.

How dare they? Imagine people interrupting the people’s house!

And then the next day, these people dared to abseil down the front of Parliament House, while others stood in a water feature that they had dyed red, in front of the people’s parliament, with signs supporting refugees.

How dare these people undermine our democracy? So said every unthinking conservative.

The Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, was also outraged by this protest: 

‘The reason the Labor Party stayed in here today is because we will never give in to those who wish to shut this Parliament down. No matter what the protest, no matter who tries it or what the issue they think it is, this is the exact opposite of democracy.’

Protesting is the "exact opposite of democracy"? Is this the death rattle of democracy?

Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek echoed his comments — so much so that Greg Sheridan in The Australian said:

‘All democrats must condemn enemies of democracy. Shorten’s deputy, Tanya Plibersek, followed up with a sound in-principle condemnation of these security breaches.'

It gets worse. By comparison, these Labor leaders’ responses were nuanced compared to some, like Coalition Senator James McGrath (one of Turnbull’s assistant ministers). He let loose.

Here is how he described the protesters on Facebook:

'A bunch of bong-sniffing, dole-bludging, moss-munching, glue-guzzling, K-Mart Castros are again vandalising Parliament. And stopping other opinions being heard. These grubs should be made to pay for their damage and have the book thrown at them. As the Greens support their action, then the Greens should stump up the money.'

Memo to McGrath: you smoke a bong, not sniff it. Then again, accuracy is not a hallmark of the Coalition.

As McGrath says, the Greens supported the protests. I am not a Green and I am not a Labor Party member. I am a socialist. But well done to the Greens for supporting democracy in action.

And that is what this these protests were — democratic. The Whistleblowers, Activists and Citizens Alliance protesters gave voice to the voiceless — those asylum seekers and refugees we imprison in concentration camps on Manus Island and Nauru. They gave voice to a large number of Australians who oppose these gulags and want to "Close the Bloody Camps" and "Bring Them Here", and for whom sanctioning torture, rape and other abuses are unacceptable.

It says much about the state of democracy in Australia today that the stance of the two Labor leaders, on peaceful protests in Parliament, is anti-democratic. Their views are, apart from the veneer of softer language, not much different to the reactionaries in its anti-democratic sentiment. There is a reason for this.

The Labor Party (ALP) as a party of reform and social democracy has been degenerating for some time. The Hawke and Keating Labor Governments introduced the class collaborationist Prices and Incomes Accord. The Accord set in train a massive shift in wealth and income from labour to capital and a huge decline in union membership.

Traditionally, the Labor Party has been a contradictory party — a capitalist workers’ party. Because its goal is to manage capitalism, any ALP government is bound in a straitjacket by the necessary economic conditions of the time and the capacity of the capitalist system to pay for "reforms".

Whether those reforms are progressive or merely chimeras of reform depends not on Labor Party parliamentarians but on the level of class struggle and social struggle outside the parliament. Both are at record or near record lows, which means the employers’ one-sided class war, apart from a few upsurges, has continued unchallenged for decades.

That is why wage increases are at record lows, why both major parties can get away with imprisoning innocent people offshore, why the Turnbull Government can reintroduce the Australian Building and Construction Commission and why One Nation is on the rise.

There is no real left-wing alternative offering a way forward for workers across the country.

This degeneration and failure of social democracy is not a peculiarly Australian phenomenon. In France, Socialist President Francois Hollande announced he would not stand next year for a second term given his unpopularity — an unpopularity associated with his neoliberal programme and slow French economy.

In Greece, PASOK, the seemingly rusted-on party of social democracy, collapsed because of its implementation of brutal social spending cuts, and attacks on wages, pensions and jobs. SYRIZA rose from its ashes, in conjunction with forces further to the left and out of the struggles in the streets against austerity. The capitulation of SYRIZA to austerity is one logical outcome of social democracy and its lack of an organic connection to the people it represents and to its role as the parliamentary manager of capitalism.

In the U.S., Bernie Sanders lit the firmament with his democratic socialist rhetoric. He would likely have won the U.S. presidential election. The Clinton Democrats feared him more than they did a Trump presidency. His capitulation to Clinton and failure to build independently of the Democrats has doomed the movement, at least under his leadership.

In the UK, the rise of socialist Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the British Labour Party, and to increase his vote in the face of a "Blairite" challenge, has given hope to millions both in the UK and outside it.

The problem is that managing capitalism is not just a matter of will. It is the inescapable fact that global profit rates have been falling for some time, as a result of the very success of capitalism. Marx identified this as "the tendency of the rate of profit to fall", something he argued was inbuilt into mature capitalism.

Australia was somewhat immune from this global tendency in the early 2000s because of China’s expanding economy and the mining boom, but now the good times are over we can expect the neoliberal attacks on workers’ living standards to accelerate (alongside $50 billion in tax cuts for business) in an attempt to restore profit rates.

Labor, given its history, its personnel and the lack of class struggle will not be immune from this neoliberal austerity programme. There is no Jeremy Corbyn in today’s Labor Party Opposition.

The time has come to rebuild a real left that, like Jeremy Corbyn, fights for democracy and puts people before profit.

Read more by John Passant on his website En Passant. You can also follow John on Twitter @JohnPassant.

Signed copies of John Passant’s first book of poetry, Songs for the Band Unformed (Ginninderra Press 2016) are available for purchase from the IA store HERE.


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