Saturday, November 11, 2017

Lest we forget... when working people had real social power and the right resorted to a coup

Protest after Gough Whitlam was sacked by the governor-general.
As November 11 is Remembrance Day, so it is worth remembering that on November 11, 1975, the elected government of Australia was removed in a coup against the only truly left-leaning reforming government this nation has had.

After media attacks and economic sabotage and blackmail from the economic elites, the means was the "reserve powers" of the unelected governor-general operating as the representative of the British monarch. Governor-General John Kerr, in conspiracy with the Liberals, overthrew Gough Whitlam's Labor government and dissolved both houses of parliament,

In many ways, what the Whitlam government did was not that radical, but it can feel that way today. After a couple of decades of conservative rule, amid the general social upheaval of "the Sixties", Labor swept into office in 1972 and introduced free education and universal health care, legislated equal pay for women and Aboriginal land rights, withdrew Australia from the Vietnam War and diplomatically recognised the People's Republic of China, among other socially progressive measures.

This feels almost revolutionary after a couple of decades of neoliberal "counter-reform", but in many ways the Whitlam government also showed no desire to serious upturn the status quo or challenge the system. A symbol of this was the Indonesian invasion of East Timor in the dying days of Whitlam's government.

A leaked document showed Australia's ambassador to Indonesia Richard Woolcott said Australia should support it as a better deal over oil in the Timor Sea could be struck if East Timor was rule by the far-right Indonesian military dictatorship, rather than by the left-wing, anti-imperialist Fretilin party who ruled the newly independent nation. 

It could be said Whitlam's government had more pressing things on its mind at the time, but Whitlam continued publicly supporting Indonesia's occupation -- as did Labor right until its the end in 1999, suggesting it wasn't just the confusion of those hectic days at play.

The "Big End of Town" eventually turned on the Whitlam government amid economic chaos. In doing so, they confronted a powerful, highly organised workers movement -- probably at the height of its powers. The threat of a general strike against this right-wing assault on democracy was in the air, and strikes and protests broke out spontaneously.

Below I have posted a great song, "The Ballad of '75", that captures the mood in those days. It is by the Sydney-based Celtic punk band from the '80s, Roaring Jack -- led by the fiery Scottish-born socialist Alistair Hulett.

The song captures the contradictory sense of anger and confusion ("Drinking in the streets gave way to doubt") , but the most striking thing from our 21st century vantage point is the description it provides of the organised power of working people in those days.

This is spelled out in the song's opening scene, in a matter-of-fact way. The song is sung from the perspective of a young worker in an oxide plant in the then-working class area of North Fitzroy. When word comes that "they've given Gough the bullet", the workers simply walk out. 

Bert Gilchrist told the gaffer because Bert Gilchrist had the clout
He said, "They've given Gough the bullet and the lads are walking out"
And we walked right off that job while the gaffer held the door
And watched it on the telly in a TV rental store

The power relationship is described clearly: A shop floor militant "had the clout" and the boss ("gaffer") is reduced to holding open the door as his workforce files out.

We could talk a lot, no doubt, about the way this social power at the time was deliberate not used, sidelined, by the Bob Hawke-led ACTU, and the way this helped shift the balance of forces towards the right and opened the way for the Liberals to defeat Labour in the elections Kerr's double dissolution brought on.

But I think it is worth noting this power, as it's so far from our reality. Today, what the song describes would be highly illegal trade union action accompanied by six figure fines on any union that dared to try it (the CFMEU have in recent years walked out over safety, and that is exactly what they got, along with threatened jail sentences for union members).

The union movement has shrunk dramatically since 1975, from over 50% coverage to less than 15% today. That is real power lost -- and not just in formal rights, but actual social power.

For instance, in 1969, when a militant left-wing transport union leader Clarrie O'Shea was jailed under anti-union laws, the largest national strike post World War II won his freedom. The unions are in no condition for a repeat of that today  -- though new ACTU secretary Sally McManus, among others, is trying to  rebuild some of this power (which is why she is such a bogey figure for the right wing).

I think this social power of working people helps explain the sacking of the Whitlam government. The "Bert Gilchrist's" of the world, and the song's narrator, were emboldened by Whitlam's government.

The Malcolm Fraser government came in with the aim of undermining this power, but the union movement was strong enough to blunt much of the attacks. A much more complex process, where by a Hawke-led Labor government in the 80s signed an "Accord" with unions, made bigger gains in opening up a process of weakening union power, followed by the direct confrontations of the Howard years in the '90s and 2000s.

But for now... lest we forget there was a time when working people were so strong in this country, they could walk out at a whim -- and the powerful forces of the status quo had to launch a coup to remove a government they identified with.


I remember the day I was no more than a boy
Working in an oxide plant at the back of North Fitzroy
Bert Gilchrist told the gaffer because Bert Gilchrist had the clout
He said, "They've given Gough the bullet and the lads are walking out"

And we walked right off that job while the gaffer held the door
And watched it on the telly in a TV rental store
It was one hell of a situation, the kind you just can't gauge
There was Gough on the steps of parliament house saying now maintain the rage

In the year of the double dissolution
Drinking in the streets gave way to doubt
Australia voted in a revolution
Then stood back and let the fat cats push it out

There was violence in the air as I walked back home that night
Everyone you'd meet was getting ready for the fight
Saying "If they're out for trouble then trouble's what they'll get
We started out a colony do they think we're a colony yet?"

But as the weeks went by the anger turned to mild relief
Locks were freed like magic and I watched in disbelief
To see a scam so blatant so jacked up and full of holes
And the people in their thousands endorsed it at the polls

Some said they had it coming some were closer to the mark
Who spoke about conspiracy sinister and dark
But history records it and the story will be read
How we let them take democracy and stand it on its head



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