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The Cunningham By-Election

Just over a year ago the prospect of a Coalition-led third term victory seemed improbable. Now Labor has lost one of its safest seats in the country, with a swing of over 16% to the Greens. The Labor Party should at the very least be doing some serious soul-searching after such a debacle.

Crean did make some sound comments about the Howard government just prior to the by-election. He mentioned that that people are unhappy with the Government's position on Iraq, that they are unhappy about the Government talking about new taxes and the sale of Telstra. He said that John Howard was taking Illawarra for granted. All of this is quite true, quite correct. But it is founded on one fundamental error: this Coalition wasn't being tested in this election. We were and we've been punished with a 6% drop in our primary vote.

It is improbable that the rule changes from the special conference had any significant effect on the election result. Internal Labor Party machinations are beyond the ken of any person who wishes to remain a sane person anyway. The 50/50 rule irked those who want the ALP to be a peak political council of the unions, but very few are going to change their vote over it. Rather than rules, the ALP was punished in Cunningham because of poor policy.

The ALP has sidelined the opportunity to bring deal with our refugee policy despite the various votes of successive state conferences. Crean still believes that there is widespread support for mandatory detention, even though this has been clearly rejected by each state conferences where this has been put to test. Evidently he is utterly unaware of the dismay and loss of motivation felt by rank and file party members over the approach to the Tampa affair in the last Federal election and that continues to this day. To the average member it seems that the Party leadership to lacks the capacity to listen on this critically important issue.

The ALP failed to take up the advice of Laurie Bereton who stated clearly, week ago "Labor must be clear: no troops in Iraq". That's a clear, strong message that is good ground to fight the Government on. The electorate is not stupid, they realise that Saddam is a despot, but there also clear that there are other nations in the same region that have weapons of mass destruction, that have invaded an occupied other countries and are in breach of UN Security Council resolutions. Australians don't want to play second fiddle in a war that has nothing to do with us or be a pawn in the geopolitical oil game. We certainly don't want young men dying for it.

In the Cunningham by-election, the ALP engaged in the most ridiculous negative campaign, smearing the Greens with complete untruths concerning their policy on greenhouse gases. What sort of strategy is this? The ALP should be trying to outflank the Greens on environmental questions rather than let them monopolise progressive policy on these issues. Time and time again it has been shown that
concern for the environment is the number one issue for the youth of today - and for good reason. The planetary timebomb is ticking, and is contemporary reports are right, we're talking a time frame of 50-70 years to extinction at the current rate. And that's not extinction of the ALP.

Finally, it has to be recognised that Cunninham is in the heartland of Labor's traditional working-class regions. This loss to the Greens was no result from the inner-urban professionals, it was from blue-collar voters. There is good reason for that as well. Whilst the Labor Party has been very good at opposing privitisation from the vantage point of opposition we've been the Party that has implemented it in government, both State and Federal. So rather than simply opposing, say the further sale of Telstra, why not stand for some "old-fashioned" public enterprises? Putting the Commonwealth Bank back in public hands is both popular and economically sound. The same goes for publically-owned electricty and gas companies. Ditto for a publically owned transport system. And finally, for the future of the nation, free, secular and public education to the tertiary level.

These are the very policies that attracted people to join the Labor Party in the first place. These are popular, strong policies from which we can win public debate. They provide the foundations of future economic success. They provide the opportunity for a democratic society and one where environmental considerations can have real input. The ALP cannot seriously think that rank and file
members will be enthusiastic and volunteer their time to campaign for a Party that ignores opportunities to improve our objective of "democratic socialisation". The ALP cannot seriously think that members will defend the Party in public and private debates. We need a Party that we are proud of, not one that we make excuses for.

It is fair to assume, with the most exception of the most distasteful factional warlords, that the majority of the ALP caucus actually wants to win government. In order to do so the Party has to go on the offensive against the Coalition and with the backing reserve of sound policy. The days of governments losing elections rather than oppositions winning them are over. A holding position in opposition will simply consign onself to permanent opposition. We need to target their weak spots of the Coalition - their business links, their slashing of public services, privitisation of public goods, their destructive environmental policies and of course the blind following of US foreign policy for example. And when we go on the offensive with these targets when need clear practical alternatives rather than simple negatives. With this strategy the Party will score a few victories and will be on the way to ridding Australia of what is possibly the worst government in the last fifty years.

Lev Lafayette, International Branch member, Santa Cruz, East Timor

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