Devastating Voice defeat, Labor backing Israeli genocide. Time for #LeftVoteStrike

Oct 20, 2023
The national flag flutters on the Parliament House.

If you are a critic of Anthony Albanese’s Labor government, stop whining about it. Do something instead. You can find leverage in the political opportunity structure to pressure the Labor party on three key demands: recognising Palestine; withdrawing from the AUKUS submarine deal, and stopping new fossil fuel projects. Here’s how.

Phase 2 of the Gaza crisis brought calls for restraint. “Democracies are held to higher standards,” US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken told Israel, a week on from the devastating Hamas raid. The European Council statement emphasised “the importance to ensure the protection of all civilians at all times in line with International Humanitarian Law”, even going so far as to re-commit the EU to “a lasting and sustainable peace based on the two-state solution”. Here, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s statement to Parliament mentioned the rules of war and the need to protect civilian lives.

This contrasted with the previous phase, when Israel’s “right to defend itself” seemed to be viewed as unconditional. UK Labour leader Keir Starmer, a senior lawyer and former Director of Public Prosecutions, even told an interviewer the country would have “every right” to cut off supplies of food, water and power to Gaza: a collective punishment in flat-out contravention of IHL.

Diplomatic signals, and the need to keep various governments onside, doubtless entered the calculations. But the switch to a slightly more balanced line can also be chalked up as an extra-movement outcome from the global upswell of street-level protests at the threat to Palestinian lives.

The reaction has recalled communications scholar Manuel Castells’ formula, “networks of outrage and hope”. Largely spontaneous; responding in the here-and-now, and distinguished more by strong feelings on the need to speak out than by prominently displayed specific demands.

In this, it echoes Australia’s last successful action by supporters of Palestinian rights, when the 2022 Sydney Festival accepted money from the Israeli Embassy. Within days, over a hundred artists withdrew from the event, with organisers forced to issue a statement forswearing any similar sponsorship in future.

As I write this, the people of Gaza are still in deadly peril. And, notwithstanding the EU statement, pathways to justice – legal, diplomatic or political – still appear blocked. The pressure must be redoubled: but how?

Informed readers will have recognised, above, concepts from social movement theory. The large demonstrations – in Sydney’s Hyde Park, at Town Hall, and in many other cities around the world – represent, in themselves, a successful “intra-movement outcome”. How can they lead to lasting change in the wider world?

This is where scholars would identify the “political opportunity structure” as key. Most of those who’ve assembled under the iconic tricolour over recent days would recognise themselves as being on the Left. In Australia’s political system, their votes are taken for granted.

Everyone is corralled into supporting either one of two parties – mostly, except where Greens or Teals have tipped the balance, Labor or the Coalition. It now seems to be seared deep into the ALP psyche that it can only win by trimming to the centre. Left voters might prefer Greens (or, in some cases, Socialist Alliance), but in the end they must face a binary choice – and they’re never going to support Peter Dutton.

But this is where opportunity lies. How many conversations among progressive Australians since the last Federal Election will have finished, with a sigh: “At least there’s the Voice”? It was Albanese’s figleaf: the one consolation for voters who’d entertained hopes of ambitious reforms.

Now that’s gone, it’s Time (did you see what I did there?) to turn the screw. To be specific: commit, publicly and in advance, to (1) Voting Green (let us say) No 1; (2) Leaving the rest of the form blank, except perhaps writing #LeftVoteStrike somewhere on it; (3) photographing it to share on social media; (4) posting it in the box as an informal ballot.

How could Labor get out from under? Begin by recognising Palestine, which its own members voted on to its National Platform (“as an important priority”). A modest first step, but one that would validate support for the International Criminal Court investigation into war crimes, including Israeli settlements. (Remember that wonderfully unambiguous line in the Fourth Geneva Convention: “An occupying power must not move any part of its population into the territory it occupies”).

Throw in a demand to quit the dangerous and (it’s becoming ever-clearer) impracticable AUKUS submarine deal, and once again you’d be cutting with the grain of grassroots party opinion. The same would be true if a demand was added for Australia to accept responsibility for Phase 3 emissions from fossil fuels exported overseas: with consequent cessation of the infamous 116 new oil, coal and gas projects. One of them, fracking the Beetaloo Basin, met with near-unanimous rejection from Northern Territory Labor’s own conference.

Get #LeftVoteStrike trending over the next eighteen months; target a few carefully chosen inner-city marginals at the next Federal Election in 2025, and the ALP’s narrow parliamentary majority could crumble. Better yet: the party would be in no doubt as to the reason for its defeat, and would have to recast its agenda leftwards, to govern alone in future. Those within Labor who’ve stood up for Palestine, opposed AUKUS and called for decisive action to curb climate change would be vindicated and strengthened.

A benign outcome would force Albanese, now leader of the largest party but short of the magic 76 seats, to negotiate a legislative agenda with the Greens. The risk would be of letting the Coalition back in. An outcome to be avoided at all costs, surely?! The Libs and Nats have no intention of, say, delivering on Gonski funding to public schools, or building thousands of desperately needed social housing units. Instead, they’d squander billions on nuclear submarines, and follow through with Stage 3 tax cuts to channel yet more cash to the already wealthy. Oh…

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