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Australian Labor Is Becoming the Party for Coal

The fires are barely out, and a new right-wing faction in the Labor Party is organizing to protect the coal industry. It didn’t take long for party leader Anthony Albanese to cave.

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese during a division in the House of Representatives at Parliament House on February 11, 2020 in Canberra, Australia. (Tracey Nearmy / Getty Images)

“I like fighting Tories. That’s what I do,” said Anthony Albanese as he conceded Australian Labor Party (ALP) leadership to Bill Shorten, from the party’s right.

Some six years later, Shorten lost the un-losable election and Albanese — from the left — gently collected the dropped reins. At the press conference, he promised to fight Scott Morrison in a “vigorous fashion.”

Very few would use this word to describe Albanese’s performance thus far. Instead, Albanese has been defending coal exports, even while Sydney was blanketed in smoke. In the aftermath of the Christmas bushfires, even Coalition voters are turning against coal mining. But Albanese has remained on message, applauding the Adani mine and repeating the lie that it will create thousands of jobs.

We were promised an anti-Tory crusader. We were given an affable invertebrate.

Sensing Albanese’s passion for appeasement, a secret, hard-right pro-coal faction has formed, calling itself the “Otis Group.” Confronted with white-anting like this, any of the historic leaders of the ALP would have demanded blood. But not Albanese, who has continued to good-humoredly turn a blind eye, saying: “That’s what happens in Canberra — people go out and people chat about ideas. There is nothing unusual about this.”

The Long March to the Chiropractor

The socialist critique of the ALP is as old as the party. But the ALP has not always been this spineless. Both the ALP left and right used to understand that class-struggle reformism requires a willingness to fight — hard.

John Curtin was not from the left of the party, but he assumed leadership with their backing. As prime minister during World War II, he used state power to reorganize the economy, contributing to the defeat of Nazism and laying a basis for Australia’s postwar welfare state. Well did he say:

I give you the Labor government’s policy in a phrase — victory in war, victory for the peace. On that we stand inflexible, for a lost peace would be marked by horrors of starvation, unemployment, misery, and hardship no less grievous than the devastation of war.

A decade later in 1956, Jim Cairns, a towering intellectual figure from the left, took his seat. He declared:

The purpose of Labor is not to make governments, but to make better social conditions . . . I believe Labor will long be prepared to remain in opposition rather than give up its policy by identifying with the parties of big business and other conservative organizations.

Despite the efforts of its socialists, the ALP has never been a socialist party. But it was a working-class party. In those days, the ALP right and left used to embody each side of Gramsci’s famous aphorism, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,” respectively. The Right enjoyed the advantages of clever pragmatism while the Left guarded the party’s vision of the future, preserving its values and helping it to recover after defeat (or betrayal).

The Gough Whitlam government (with Cairns as treasurer) epitomized this relationship. Whitlam’s defeat — and the failure of the Left to carry on the fight — was when the modern ALP’s spine started to liquefy.

Today, both sides of Gramsci’s equation have been wrenched apart and diluted to near homeopathic concentrations.

The ALP right’s cleverness has become asinine. Tom Ballard recently interviewed former Labor minister Craig Emerson and challenged him on the party’s support for fossil fuel. Emerson responded by asking whether the people of Bangladesh should go without electricity, implicitly accusing Ballard of first-world privilege. Ballard’s counterquestion was apt: Will Bangladesh’s lights work underwater?

The ALP left, on the other hand, has no values left to sell. All that remains is an aversion to conflict and a hope that somehow things will work out for the best. Commenting on Adam Bandt’s assumption of Greens leadership, Albanese said: “I don’t think you can advance your cause, your objective, with strong rhetoric that has people who agree with you agreeing with you even stronger.”

Otis and the Groupers

Those words were spoken a week before the Otis Group was exposed. In the name of “coal workers,” they want to overturn Albanese’s opposition to building new coal-fired power plants and to give the industry higher subsidies. Days before being exposed, Joel Fitzgibbon, a leader of the group, published a tweet criticizing the Liberals for “threatening a big new tax on the Australia’s wealth-creating gas sector.”

There’s a precedent for this kind of hard-right, pro-business laborism. Don Farrell, another of the Otis Group’s leaders, gives us a clue. Before being parachuted into a senate seat, he served as national president of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA). The SDA is a business union that collaborates with major retailers to undermine wages and conditions. They are famously conservative and were once aligned with a hard-right, Catholic anti-Communist faction known as the “Groupers,” led by Tony Abbott’s political hero, B. A. Santamaria. Like the Otis Group, the Groupers — initially a secret set until revealed by the media — smuggled their conservative agenda in an empty claim to represent workers’ interests.

The difference is that the Groupers did enjoy some working-class support, via the anti-Communist “Industrial Groups” that came to control a number of key unions. The Groupers were strongest in Victoria. At the height of their influence, they controlled a number of unions as well as the State Executive of the Victorian ALP.

Then ALP leader H. V. “Doc” Evatt fought the Groupers ruthlessly. Although he was no communist, he had led the ALP’s campaign against the 1951 referendum to ban the Communist Party. The postwar ALP recognized an attack on one workers’ party as an attack on the class as a whole. Evatt also understood the threat posed by the Groupers. Four months after the 1954 election, he came out swinging. Labor had won seven fewer seats than Robert Menzies’s Liberal Party despite receiving over 50 percent of the popular vote. For Evatt, it was disunity that cost the party victory.

Throwing out the Groupers wasn’t easy. First, the ALP’s National Executive dissolved the pro-Grouper Victorian State Executive and appointed another. Then, at the 1955 ALP National Conference in Hobart, Evatt excluded and expelled them. This precipitated a split in the Victorian Party.

Four unions disaffiliated from the Labor Party, including the SDA. In Victoria, four ministers resigned and soon after, a total of eleven expelled Groupers crossed the floor of the Legislative Assembly, joining with the Liberals to vote out John Cain’s ALP state government. In spite of the pain, “Doc” Evatt did not hesitate while amputating the gangrenous faction.

As consequence, the Groupers became the Democratic Labor Party and used their votes to help the Liberals form a government. This showed their true colors, and they were henceforth seen by the rest of the labor movement as scabs. They were branded “Labor rats” for furthering the Liberal Party’s agenda.

The long-term gains more than justified the short-term pain. If Evatt’s nerve had faltered, it’s likely that the Groupers would have blocked Gough Whitlam’s reform agenda. His government took steps toward decriminalizing homosexuality and abortion while bolstering women’s rights by introducing no-fault divorce and allowing single mothers to access welfare.

The lesson is simple: curing an infection is painful, but the alternative is worse. The Groupers were beaten when they were exposed as scabs. To do the same with the Coal Groupers, the ALP left would need to discredit their claim to represent workers’ interests.

The only way to do this is to expose the interests the Coal Groupers serve, and fight for workers instead.

A Conga Line of Cowards

When it boils down to it, the Otis Group want to cut taxes on an industry that already pays virtually none. And they want to give that industry more money, even though it already receives billions in subsidies every year. None of this will go to workers. And as the long decline of Australian car manufacturing shows, corporations won’t think twice about abandoning workers who have given decades of their life when profits dry up, subsidies or not.

Farrell, Fitzgibbon, and the other Coal Groupers have committed the political equivalent of crossing a picket line. There can be no common ground between Gina Rinehart, a woman who writes poetry about mining, and a rural Queenslander dying of black lung, a disease caused solely by coal mining. There is no common ground between Gautam Adani, a vicious Hindu supremacist who has employed child labor, and a power plant worker who will, if not today, then tomorrow, be jobless and broke.

Joel Fitzgibbon, who inherited his seat from his father, will probably lose it soon. But he will never know what it’s like to be over fifty and on unemployment benefits. Don Farrell clearly thinks himself very clever; his contempt for workers shines through his visible self-satisfaction as he answers the media’s questions. He’s so clever that he has, along with the other Coal Groupers, made himself a useful idiot for a handful of repulsive billionaires.

Doc Evatt would have expelled these rats. In theory, Albanese could too.

The ALP is famed for its rigid caucus discipline. As early as 1900, the party required its candidates to sign a pledge swearing loyalty to caucus majority. Historically, breaches in this discipline have led to swift disciplinary action and expulsion, enforced by a caucus vote or the National Executive. For the most part, dissident MPs see this coming and jump before they are pushed. In the 1980s, this happened twice, both times to staunch ALP leftists.

The first was George Georges, a federal senator from Queensland. Georges was a fighter; he was arrested on sixteen occasions and jailed several times for antiwar and civil rights activism.

In 1986, Georges refused to vote for laws deregistering the militant Builders Labourers Federation, describing them as an “outrage” and “clear contradiction of party policy and platform.” He was suspended for six months. Six months later, he was back at it. When then–prime minister Bob Hawke introduced a national ID card, Georges declared his intention to vote against in the senate. Knowing that he would be expelled swiftly, Georges resigned in protest.

The second was former Communist New South Wales State MP George Petersen. In 1987, Petersen crossed the floor to vote against a law reducing payments to injured workers, describing it as “vicious, anti–working class legislation.” Facing certain expulsion, he resigned.

The Otis Group’s offense is far worse than voting against a law that violates labor principles anyway. They have organized in secret to advance the interests of the class enemy. But they won’t be expelled. Even if Albanese wished to expel them, it’s doubtful the parliamentary caucus would back him.

Since the 1980s, the ALP’s iron discipline has held against the Left. In order to introduce neoliberalism (under the auspices of The Accord), then–prime minister Bob Hawke found it necessary to fight dissenting unions (like the Builders Labourers Federation, BLF) and their parliamentary sympathizers in the ALP left. Hawke’s victory over the Left was so complete that it echoes thirty years later.

This explains Albanese as much as the Otis Group. The leaders of both left and right factions were trained in the 1980s and ’90s. The only victories they won were against those further to the left. Caucus discipline has been used for decades, but only to discipline the Left. As a result, every ALP left parliamentarian, blackmailed by the threat of expulsion or deselection, has voted for every bad law and defended every betrayal. Anthony Albanese is the living embodiment of the spiritual and intellectual toll this has taken.

Evatt was able to expel the Groupers because the ALP of his time was still animated by class struggle, albeit in a reformist manner. They knew a rat when they smelled one. The ALP today is so far from class politics that rats congratulate each other’s cleverness over dinner while the optimists of the Left do their bidding.