Monday, August 23, 2010

People before Prophets!

The local newspaper rang during the election campaign to ask some “questions without notice.” I stumbled a bit when they asked “What is your party’s policy on paid maternity leave and how much would it cost?”

The journalist transcribed my clumsy answer thus: “I don’t have a cost figure but I can get it. We do support paid maternity leave for both parents. Substantial leave.”

(For the record, the exact Socialist Alliance policy is “12 months’ parenting leave fully paid by employer contributions to a publicly managed scheme; the right to return to the same job; and generous paid leave to allow parents to take time off work to care for sick children and attend school activities.”)

I thought I was caught off guard forgetting the details of that important policy. But how’s this for the other socialist candidate, Tania Baptist of the Socialist Equality Party:

“Well we, hang on. We don’t have policies as such. Essentially what we are aiming for is a transformation of society so production is not used for profit but need. What was the question? There would be high quality child care and parental leave at full pay for as long as a mother thinks she needs it.”

Perhaps the journalist was a bit cheeky to print the whole fumbled answer, but on the other hand why let such a clumsy response go unpunished? We don’t have any policies, but trust us! We will usher in paradise.

“We don’t have policies as such” says a lot. Using an election for abstract propaganda about revolution and socialism has real dangers: you may come across as a clown. (No polices? What?!)

I attended a candidates’ forum at the Footscray Community Arts Centre a week before the elections. The sitting ALP member didn’t bother to show her face, so we had a panel of western suburbs candidates that included two SA, two SEP, two Greens, plus one each from the Revolutionary Socialist Party, Australian Democrats, Secular Party and Sex Party.

It struck me that neither of the two other socialist parties had any substantial policies. When asked what arts policies would we first implement if we were elected, the SA Senate candidate Ron Guy listed a whole lot of useful reforms that could help artists, such as (to name but one) relaxing the laws on public liability insurance for arts events. Anyone who has organised a community event knows the burden of public liability insurance: a useful, practical policy, if not particularly revolutionary in itself.

Discussing the events on an email discussion, one RSP member criticised the Socialist Alliance in the following terms:

The RSP is a REVOLUTIONARY organisation. We shouldn't see elections as a chance to put forward left reforms but rather to use it as a platform to challenge and expose the nature of the system. While [RSP candidate for the seat of Lalor] Van talked about the need for the class to defend themselves against the state [Senate candidate] Ron from SA came up with a series of feel good policy on the spot that did nothing to forward people's political consciousness of the nature of the society that we live in. Ron put forward a shopping list of demands which strangely included "raise funding for the arts to be equal with sport. Because art is at least as important if not more so."

The supposed feel-good policies were not come up with on the spot; they were a quick draft of an arts policy. By contrast, the RSP responded that, were they elected, the first thing they would do is prepare for an onslaught of the political and armed might of the ruling class, to punish the voters of that electorate for electing someone committed to abolishing their system. I kid you not!

During the whole meeting, the RSP and the SEP were subjected to impatient interjections asking for them to answer the questions and to explain their policy on arts (not revolution). I think it’s fair enough; the meeting was called to allow the artistic community to question candidates on their arts policy. It wasn’t called as a group class on the meaning of socialism and revolution, however much one might want to talk about that.

Socialists have all kinds of criticisms of parliamentary elections. They are rigged by big money and incumbency, for a start. Parliament does not control the stock market and the important corporate decisions for another.

But if socialists are ever going to catch people’s imagination, we have to start from people’s concerns in the here and now. Rabbiting on about revolution like it’s a history lecture is, when it comes down to it, just lecturing people.

For all their huff and puff, the SEP do have policies anyway. In answer to the question “How would you address high unemployment in the West?” Tania Baptist answered, “as part of our program we have a massive public works program to provide employment for all.” Pretty general, but still a policy. So why pretend to be too revolutionary for real-life, real-time problems? Why not elaborate on this rudimentary policy?

The key is what was once called transitional politics. Whether SA has got it right exactly, we are trying to present ideas that strike a chord. The next step would be to convince people that they can, and should, fight for these ideas. If the current economic system can’t deliver on their demands, then that will be a greater lesson than any lecture.

Acting the prophet of revolution, forseeing economic doom under capitalism, while promising pie-in-the-sky socialism, isn’t going to win anyone. It’s elitist and more worthy of a millenarian cult. The left can do better than that!


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